Ethiopia Edges Toward Peace Talks


IN this crowded, hilly capital of one of the world's most ancient cultures, a people impoverished and saddened by 28 years of civil war hungers for peace. Some Ethiopians are hopeful that the leaders of their government have, as one Ethiopian official put it, ``finally come to their senses'' in offering to negotiate peace with the rebels in the north.

But other Ethiopians, including rebel leaders, are skeptical. They worry that the Marxist government of Mengistu Haile Miriam is merely talking peace to gain time to rebuild its devastated, leaderless Army, after many defeats and a near-successful coup May 16 by most of its top officers.

A Western diplomat here acknowledges that negotiation would give the military time to rebuild. But, he says, the government is serious about seeking peace and ``genuinely wants to start negotiations.'' However, if talks do start, he says, ``I think it's going to be a long haul'' to a settlement.

``This time last year, the [government] slogan was `Everything to the war front,''' the diplomat said. ``Now it's `Everything to the peace front.'''

A spokesman in the United States for the rebel Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), Tesfai Ghermazien, is doubtful. ``They [the government] just bring the slogan of peaceful negotiations whenever they are in trouble. They use it as a means to regroup and launch another offensive.''

The government made its first public peace overtures to the Eritrean rebels in June when it urged them to take part in negotiations to end Africa's longest running civil war. The official ``peace initiative'' statement offered to begin talks ``without any preconditions,'' and to conduct them ``in the presence of an observer to be selected by mutual consent.''

In Washington, the rebel spokesman Mr. Ghermazien said he hoped talks would begin ``sometime in September,'' but he did not know where.

Several factors appear to be pushing the Ethiopian government to pay more than lip service to peace talks, say Ethiopians, diplomats, and Western political analysts in London and the US:

Military defeats. The Army has lost ground steadily over the past year, and has also apparently lost the will to fight. In some cases, rebels have smashed the Army; in other cases, as in the Tigrean capital of Mekele, the Army simply deserted rather than fight.

Rebels now control Tigre and much of Eritrea, Ethiopia's two northernmost provinces.

Soviet pressure. The Soviet Union, Ethiopia's main military and political supporter, has made it quite clear it is tired of paying for a war with no end in sight. There are no indications the Soviets intend to renew a five-year military weapons contract when it expires in two years, says a Western diplomat.

Poverty. The economy of Ethiopia has been crushed by the prolonged war. In one of the poorest nations of the world, 60 percent of the budget goes to the war, according to international sources here. ``Ethiopia is bleeding to death,'' says one Ethiopian civilian.

In an interview, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Berhanu Bayih said: ``If we had the opportunity to invest the amount of money expended in that war the last 14 to 15 years, you can imagine what development would have been undertaken in this country.''

But prospects for peace remain uncertain, especially if the rebels in Eritrea continue to insist on independence.

Interviews here with Ethiopian officials and a variety of other Ethiopians make it very clear that there is little support for giving up Eritrea.

``No government would last a month if it called for secession'' of Eritrea, said one nongovernment Ethiopian here who wants an end to the war.

Although the government laid down no preconditions for negotiations in its June ``peace initiative'' statement, the next day, in a press conference, President Mengistu Haile Mariam said it was ``inconceivable'' that his government would ``negotiate away any part or piece of the national territory.''

In a statement earlier this year, EPLF Secretary-General Issayas Afewerki said: ``Independence is not our precondition [to negotiations].'' But the official EPLF position, according to Ghermazien is to ``let the people'' of Eritrea vote in an internationally supervised referendum on independence versus some form of autonomy.

A Western diplomat here says the EPLF may also insist on ``security arrangements'' - some kind of local armed force to back up any negotiated agreement should the government renege.

Mr. Bayih says the government has had numerous secret contacts with rebels in the past. But this time, to gain international support, the government wants to conduct peace talks openly, in the presence of a third party.

Former US President Jimmy Carter received red-carpet treatment on a recent visit here when he met with Mengistu. After the meeting, Mr. Carter said that he is ready to help in any way he can in the Ethiopian peace process.

The EPLF also has agreed to negotiations with a third party present.

The other major rebel group in Ethiopia, the Tigrean People's Liberation Front in the northern province of Tigre, has also said it will negotiate with the Mengistu government. They have never sought independence; instead, they want a strong form of autonomy within a united Ethiopia.

The talk of peace and the attempted coup in May have brought a change of atmosphere to this capital city.

Before the coup attempt, people used to worry that negative remarks about the government might be reported by one of the army of government informants in the neighborhood, says one Ethiopian woman. Now the distaste for more war is so strong, ``people speak openly'' about their discouragement with the government, she says.

Reactions to the coup failure vary.

Some Ethiopians say most people were ``disappointed,'' because they saw it as a chance for a change, and an end to the fighting. Many people were ``indifferent,'' says one Ethiopian, seeing the coup as a ``war of the generals'' with little to do with the people. Some people were apprehensive, another adds, unsure what kind of government the new military team might have ushered in.

Diplomats here say reports of brutal actions by the government in putting down the coup, especially in the Eritrean capital of Asmara, are generally true.

One report by a Western analyst in London cited the executions of more than a dozen top officers in connection with the May coup attempt. Some sources here say executions of suspected coup plotters are continuing. Bayih denies these reports.

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