As Peace Talks Open, Ethiopians Seek Orderly Transfer of Power

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FOR Ethiopia's government, the show is almost over. With the collapse of most of the government's military in the past few days, peace talks set to get down to business today in London with rebel leaders will largely focus on how the government will surrender.

During the weekend, most of the Ethiopian Navy fled to Yemen when rebels captured the last government port at Assab. Rebels also captured a key air base, just south of the capital, and reportedly took Asmera, a key northern city. Thousands of soldiers have deserted or defected, offering little resistance to lightning rebel advances.

But the stakes in the London talks remain high. ``London is terribly important,'' says a Western diplomat in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The key issue at the talks is how to avoid a massacre, according to diplomats, Ethiopians in the capital, rebel spokesmen, and Western experts on Ethiopia.

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Everyone is waiting to see what kind of new government will be set up. Will one dictatorship - that of Mengistu Haile Mariam, who fled to Zimbabwe last week - be replaced by another? Or will rebel promises of democracy be realized?

Asefa Mamo, the London spokesman for the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), told the Monitor Sunday night that the rebels want to set up a ``transitional government of all political groups in the country,'' leading to ``democratic'' elections. Rebel leaders have also spoken of multiparty democracy.

But the EPRDF's actions and even their documents - do not yet match promises of democracy. Diplomats and other Western analysts point out that in the EPRDF's own program, published in January, one section talks of democratic elections, while another section excludes from such elections capitalists, feudalists, and other so-called antigovernment forces. ``It makes one doubt this [EPRDF talk of democracy] is genuine,'' says a British expert on Ethiopia, who asked not to be identified.

``The economy they [EPRDF] are talking about is essentially state-run,'' adds Christopher Clapham, a British political scientist specializing on Ethiopia.

The Western diplomat, speaking from Addis Ababa, is more blunt: ``If the rebels come in and dictate that they are going to recreate the kebeles [government-controlled, neighborhood organizations] and build up state farms, it's back to the dark ages.''

``I doubt if there will be a blood bath, unless the EPRDF wants one,'' says Mr. Clapham. ``There might be some shootouts with die-hards of the old regime, but the key question is going to be how much revenge the EPRDF is going to take - or whether they will come in [to the capital] with reconciliation.''

Others are concerned that Ethiopians living in Addis Ababa may seek revenge against members of the now-disintegrating - and highly unpopular - central government for acts of violence against family members during its 17-year rule. Human rights organizations condemned the Mengistu regime as one of the cruelest in Africa.

The EPRDF appears to have avoided bloodshed in areas it has taken control of over the past several months. But Addis may be different, says the British expert on Ethiopian affairs.

``There's a lot of people with guns in Addis,'' he says. ``Many people dislike the Tigreans [the main ethnic group behind the EPRDF], partly because they've been beaten by them, partly because they may impose socialism again. And no one - after Mengistu - wants that again.''

It is an agonizing moment for many Ethiopians. The public mood has shifted from fear to jubilation, and back to fear, in just over a week.

Nine days ago, as this correspondent finished a visit to Ethiopia, officials and ordinary citizens were speaking out more openly against their government than in years.

One Ethiopian lamented that Mr. Mengistu had not advanced the country much beyond the feudalistic period of the late Emperor Haile Selassie. He spoke with disgust, as did most Ethiopians contacted, of Mengistu's Marxist policies and brutality.

Then, last Tuesday, with rebels nearing the capital, Mengistu suddenly fled into exile. Cautious public reaction soon turned to jubilation. People tried to tear down the giant statue of Vladimir Lenin in the city, only to be helped in completing the task by government workers with cranes.

An Ethiopian employee of a Western organization in Addis Ababa said people had spotted a circle rainbow and rejoiced over it as a good omen. ``A miracle,'' she said.

Then rebel advances toward the capital, from all sides, turned the joy to fear again.

For many ordinary Ethiopians, it is a time of prayers. Even the once-Marxist government is urging people to pray. Traditionally in troubled times, many Ethiopians jam their churches, as they did Sunday, or sit quietly in meditation. Several thousand students marched through the city chanting peace slogans.

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