Ethiopian Rebels Strengthen Hold On Countryside

Government appears on the verge of collapse, but fighting also threatens food supply routes

AFTER 30 years of waging war against the central government, Ethiopia's rebels appear close to victory - and the country's poverty-stricken people close to another famine. Time is running out for strongman Mengistu Haile-Mariam, say Western diplomats, Ethiopian and Western scholars, and rebel spokesmen.

"The position [of the government] has never seemed more uncertain," says a Western diplomat in Addis Ababa. The government has lost "half the country [to the rebels]. The economy is in ruins, and the military 201> morale is low."

In the past two months, rebels have advanced to within 100 miles of the capital, Addis Ababa. Another rebel group has struck within 30 miles of Assab, the only port still under government control, and through which fuel supplies pass for the Ethiopian military.

Assab is a key link in the food-relief route going up through Addis Ababa and into Tigre region. Food relief is also coming in through the port of Massawa, which is in rebel hands, and through Sudan. Fighting along these routes would disrupt deliveries.

If the port falls to rebels, the government "is well on the way to being choked," says Paul Henze, an expert on Ethiopia at the RAND Corporation in Washington, D.C.

Recent rebel sweeps into Welega, Gwejam, and Gonder regions put the rebels in control of Ethiopia's main food-producing areas. There has also been recent fighting in the Welo and Shewa regions.

Food prices in the capital already were climbing sharply because of the drought, and disruptions caused by the war are likely to push prices higher.

On one side of the conflict is a dictatorial government, which came to power in 1974 after ousting Emperor Haile Selassie, who had ruled the country since 1930. Two years later, the regime adopted Marxism, promising a better life to Ethiopians; it abandoned Marxism early last year.

On the other side are two main rebel groups based in northern Ethiopia. The Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), which has been fighting the central government since the late 1950s, is seeking independence for its coastal region. The Tigre People's Liberation Front (TPLF), just south of Eritrea, has been seeking autonomy for its region.

The TPLF now heads the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of smaller rebel groups. It is this group that swept through the three western regions.

The war, long considered by analysts as unwinable by either side, may now be winable by the rebels, says another Western diplomat in Addis Ababa.

The government "is shaking from its roots," claims Tesfai Ghermazien, deputy EPLF representative to the United States and Canada. Tewold Gabru, the EPRDF's London spokesman, says his group's aim is no longer just autonomy but the ouster of the Mengistu regime. But he hints that an advance on the capital may not be immediate. "We need to talk to people, to consolidate liberated areas, tell people what [the EPRDF's] transitional government should look like. This political work needs to be done."

An attack on the capital doesn't seem to be imminent, the first Western diplomat says. Nevertheless, most embassies have evacuated dependents. With few exceptions, rebel forces have been scoring clear victories, he adds.

Some 10,000 rebels who arrived recently in the western region of Welega out-maneuvered about 25,000 government soldiers whose resistance quickly dissolved, the diplomat says.

Mr. Henze says the rebels "for the most part are meeting fleeing soldiers. Sometimes they are overwhelmed by surrendering [government] soldiers."

Still, says one of the Western diplomats, "we have stopped short of writing off" the government. "There's a lot of will power still musterable around here" for the Mengistu regime.

An Ethiopian official says there is a strong popular "desire for unity" of the country. Even strong critics of the government insist they do not want to see the country dismembered by the rebels.

Referring to the two main rebel strongholds, Tigre and Eritrea, the official said: "That's our heartland. That's the source of Ethiopian civilization. Eritrea will never secede." He predicted military counteroffenses by the government will push rebels back from much of the recently acquired territory.

But in recent months rebel soldiers have killed or taken prisoner tens of thousands of government soldiers. And many new recruits are being sent to the front with little training.

Ethiopian scholar Mesfin Wolde-Mariam sees another factor in the government's favor: fear by many Ethiopians of being ruled by rebels. But rebel spokesmen claim they are fighting for democratic freedoms.

Some Western analysts say rebel military coordination in recent months shows the groups can get along with each other. But Mr. Mesfin and Michael Clough, an Africa scholar and a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Affairs in New York, assert that if rebels win the war, they might turn on each other.

"The key thing in Ethiopia is factionalism," says Mr. Clough. "I think if Mengistu falls, we could very well see another Somalia or Liberia" - countries where rival rebels ousted a dictator only to turn on each other.

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