The United States will not oppose independence for Ethiopia's rebellious province of Eritrea and expects the new government in Addis Ababa to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the long secession struggle, the State Department's chief of African affairs said Friday.
"If (the Eritreans) want to exercise the right of self-determination, there's nobody who's going to stop them," Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen said.
"They are in control of the province, and they are going to administer it," he said of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. ". . . The United States isn't going to stop them or allow them."
The prospect of secession by the northern coastal province has already sparked violent anti-American demonstrations in Addis Ababa by Ethiopians accusing the United States of helping to dismember their country, but Cohen dismissed the protests.
"They should have been happy that Mengistu was gone," he said, referring to Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who fled the country last week.
Until now, the Bush Administration has generally supported maintaining a unified Ethiopia. But Cohen said there is little the United States can do to hold Ethiopia together beyond encouraging the two sides to negotiate the issue.
So far, he said, they have been doing just that.
The Eritrean rebels "could have declared independence; they could have called a referendum and had everyone vote for independence; but they did none of those things," he said. "They came out and said, 'Our first priority is the stability of Ethiopia.' That was a pretty statesmanlike thing to do. After all, they've been fighting for 30 years for independence. I thought it was a very moderate position."
The new government in Addis Ababa has already declared its agreement to a referendum in Eritrea, he added.
"It's like if Abraham Lincoln said to the South: 'You guys want a referendum, you want to secede, it's OK with me,' " he said.
Cohen also said he has been impressed with the initial actions of Meles Zenawi, the leader of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, which took over the Ethiopian capital this week.
"So far, these Marxists who love Albania are doing a pretty good job," he said. Meles began his political career as a hard-line Marxist, but he told U.S. officials in a visit to Washington last year that he had moderated his views. Cohen, impressed by the 36-year-old guerrilla, sent him copies of "The Federalist Papers," statesman Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" and books on the end of the Cold War to woo him further from his leftist roots.
"He read them," Cohen said.
"But then, no self-respecting Marxist is still a Marxist anywhere," he added.
Cohen noted that Meles' provisional government had refrained from wholesale arrests of government and military officials after the takeover and told civil servants that they could keep their jobs.
"They have said several good things since they took over," he said. "They have said they are for democracy; they have said the private sector has a major role to play; they have said the Ethiopian government must be very active in solving the country's problems. It sounds more like social democracy to me than Marxism."
Cohen, who presided over the negotiations this week in London that set up the new government, spoke to reporters in Lisbon, where he was attending the signing of a peace accord for Angola.