Ethiopia feels internal strain as rebels gain ground in Eritrea

Poverty-racked Ethiopia has its hands full these days. As it prepares to become a full communist state, it faces a flare-up in the Eritrea rebellion, rising opposition to the government, and attempts by the two superpowers to woo its leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam.

The 22-year war between Ethiopia and the contested Eritrean territory claimed by Ethiopia took a decisive turn early this year. For the first time since 1977, major towns in Eritrea are in rebel hands. Western diplomatic sources confirm Eritrean claims that the towns of Tessenai and Ali Guidar changed hands. The independence fighters launched the counteroffensive in response to an 18-month military campaign by government forces.

Stepped-up activity by the main Eritrean rebel group - the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) - comes at a time when rising opposition throughout Ethiopia has generated strain within the government. There have also been reports of a power struggle within the ruling Provisional Military Administrative Council, known locally as the Dergue.

Reports of recent unrest in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa suggest that long-dormant urban opposition to the government is turning public. These reports allege that a cutoff in electricity in the capital in mid-January was followed by antigovernment demonstrations. Some 500 to 600 people reportedly were arrested.

Meanwhile, the EPLF charges that the Dergue received massive Soviet arms shipments. According to the EPLF's Paris office, sophisticated armaments, including 100 T-62 tanks and three squadrons of jet fighters, arrived in Ethiopia during the last four months of 1983. The rebels condemned the move, charging that the government is channeling meager foreign reserves to arms in the midst of the nation's worst famine since 1916.

After more than 80 years as an Italian colony and a decade as a British protectorate, Eritrea was annexed by United States-backed Emperor Haile Selassie in 1962. The war continued under the rule of Mengistu, who took power in 1974. The government's mid-1970s switch from US to Soviet alliance meant little to the rebels who operate from the desert plains and coastal mountain ranges. Since establishing formal ties with Ethiopia in 1977, Moscow has continued to implement the militarily defined policy in Eritrea that the US-supported regime initiated in 1961.

Since 1977, Moscow has provided Ethiopia's Army with advisers, technicians, and weaponry worth $2.5 billion, not including the alleged recent shipments.

The common denominator that has drawn two successive but ideologically opposed regimes in Addis Ababa to fight the Eritrean rebels is primarily economic. Wedged at the crest of a 500-mile strip of mountains, Eritrea shares its 600 miles of Red Sea coast with Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Yemens. To the government, Eritrea's coastline provides two ports, Massawa and Assab, essential to the economy.

For the superpowers, Eritrea's ultimate importance is its strategic location. If Eritrea were to become an independent, nonaligned state, its proximity to Mideast conflicts would likely make the US and the USSR uneasy.

Meanwhile, both superpowers vie for the allegiance of Ethiopia's military government. Although the USSR holds the upper hand, US efforts to woo Mengistu took a public turn late last year: Secretary of State George Shultz met with Ethiopian Foreign Minister Wolde Gushu in New York and announced that the US intends to improve ties with Ethiopia. Since their meeting, the US has cautioned neighboring Somalia against incursions into Ethiopia's disputed Ogaden region, where Ethiopia and Somalia have fought for almost a decade. The US statement was viewed as a move to appease Addis Ababa.

After a recent meeting in Moscow, Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko and Mengistu pledged continued close cooperation. But in a communique April 2, the Kremlin failed to mention military and economic aid for Ethiopia, a possible clue that the talks did not go so well.

Reconciliation attempts with the US may have been hampered by Ethiopia's expulsion in February of five US diplomats. The expulsions followed the arrests of 17 Ethiopian citizens for ''plotting to overthrow the government.''

Addis Ababa did not directly link the expulsions to the arrests, although the news agency did cite ''foreign involvement'' in the plotters' actions. The arrests mark the first time Mengistu has pointed publicly to internal dissent since 1978, when the government launched a campaign of terror to remove ''counterrevolutionaries.''

The announcement of the arrests may signal another move by Mengistu to purge Ethiopia of dissidents while he pushes to consolidate a new communist party. But in March, in a move viewed partly as an attempt to appease the West, Ethiopia expelled two Soviet diplomats.

Nevertheless, much of life in Eritrea continues independent of the regime in Ethiopia's capital. Extensive travel throughout the region reveals the EPLF's claim to administer 85 percent of the territory to be believable. The guerrilla presence in the EPLF-held countryside of Eritrea is marked not only by young fighters with captured Kalashnikov rifles over their shoulders, but also by a locally elected civilian administration that oversees daily life in the territory.

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