PEACE talks which began here this week between Ethiopia's Soviet-backed government and the rebel Marxist Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) are moving toward the resolution of the 28-year civil war, according to Western and Soviet diplomats here. Both warring sides settled disagreement over preconditions to talks last week, when former President Jimmy Carter and former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere were chosen as co-chairmen of the negotiations.
The 30,000-strong EPLF, largest of two main guerrilla forces in Ethiopia, is demanding independence for the northern province of Eritrea (a former Italian colony). President Mengistu has refused its right to secede.
But faced with a demoralized Army and shattered economy, the government is now sitting at the negotiating table.
``There is a very serious military situation here, or else (Mengistu) wouldn't be doing what he is doing,'' says a Western diplomat based in the Ethiopian capital.
Soviet observers agree that economic and military crises contributed to persuading President Mengistu Haile-Mariam to capitulate and talk peace. But they add that the Soviet Union's overall glasnost policy for the region was also a factor.
``We are urging all countries of the region to settle their internal problems,'' Yuri Yukalov, director of the African Department of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the Monitor.
``The talks are very fragile [but] we are of the same view as the Ethiopian government that there is no way out except through a peaceful solution to the Eritrean problem,'' said another Soviet official observing the talks. Ethiopia is one of the Soviet Union's principal allies in Africa.
Since August, the Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF) has made serious advances out of its home territory into southern Welo province. The Eritrean rebel movement (EPLF) currently is protecting the Tigrean Front's rear, allowing them to push further south.
The Tigrean front launched a first offensive February this year, and claims to have killed 3,000 government troops and captured another 9,000. In late August, it expelled the Army from the southern town of Maychew, reportedly killing a further 17,000 soldiers.
Stung by this spate of military defeats and amid reports of government soldiers surrendering in droves, Mengistu called for a mass mobilization and conscription drive to strengthen his 315,000-strong Army - black Africa's largest.
The Soviet Union continues to supply military aid. ``The Soviet Union is assisting Ethiopia in building its armed forces to defend it from aggression,'' said Yukalov. According to the 1989-90 report of the respected London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies, there are 1,700 Soviet advisers and technicians in Ethiopia.
Mengistu opened unprecedented preliminary peace talks with the TPLF in Rome last month. Although officially described as ``cordial,'' rebels seem unconvinced of the talk's success. The Tigreans have been fighting since 1974 for the overthrow of Mengistu's government.
Western diplomatic analysts attribute the guerrilla victories to the sagging quality of Ethiopia's Army, heavily dependent on briefly-trained conscripted teenagers and lacking strong leadership.
A failed military coup against Mengistu in May led to a widespread purge, eradicating almost all seasoned military commanders, they said.
One of the world's poorest nations, Ethiopia is now spending roughly half its budget on defense, putting the president ``under tremendous economic pressure,'' one diplomat said. Western analysts say there is no money for imports, production is down, and earnings from the nation's main foreign exchange producer, coffee, has collapsed with the drop in world coffee prices.
Lack of rain and failed crops in northern Ethiopia presage a famine which United Nations officials believe could be as bad as that of 1984-85, in which an estimated 1 million people died.
Eritrean independence would rob Ethiopia's only access to essential Red Sea ports, and secession would ``serve as an extremely dangerous precedent for Africa,'' Yukalov said.
Meanwhile, residents in Addis Ababa are in a ``wait and see mood'' about the talks, which continue this week. No one was expecting immediate results, said another diplomatic source there.