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Briefing Paper : Ethiopian Rebels Making Gains; Regime Fading

April 09, 1991|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Crisis:

Following a number of military victories, a coalition of Ethiopian rebel groups now has the largest swath of territory under its control since the Ethiopian revolution installed a Marxist regime 16 years ago.

The advance by elements of the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front is the most significant string of gains since Eritrean rebels, operating separately, took the important Red Sea port of Massawa more than a year ago. EPRDF forces are within 90 miles of the capital, Addis Ababa; last week they took the important provincial capital of Nekemte. Most of the provinces of Gojjam, Gonder and Walega are said to be under their control.

The Players:

The EPRDF is a loose coalition of six ethnic and regionally based rebel groups, of which the most important is the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front. Unlike Eritrean rebels, who are operating in a different part of the country, this group is not calling for independence from Ethiopia but rather for the overthrow of President Mengistu Haile Mariam, who emerged as leader of the Marxist revolutionary government in 1976.

The Tigrayan group has been identified in the past with a peculiarly Maoist and Albanian variety of Marxism, but spokesmen for the front now say they support a mixed economy.

Free markets are operating behind rebel lines, according to Seyoum Musse, head of foreign relations for the EPRDF and a TPLF leader, who was interviewed recently in Khartoum.

Mengistu is a ruthless leader who appears to be close to running out his string. He has narrowly survived several assassination attempts of late, and one coup attempt in 1989. He never appears in public now, and spends almost all of his time in the Menelik Palace, a hilltop stronghold in Addis Ababa.

The Prognosis:

The Mengistu regime has seemed to be teetering on the edge of oblivion for nearly two years, and not even the most optimistic Western observers are predicting an imminent overthrow. But no one foresees him overcoming the growing rebel strength.

"He's like a cancer patient," says one well-informed diplomat. "He'll get a little worse, then a little better, but no one expects him to ever get well."

In fact, most scenarios of Ethiopia's political future assume his death. Mengistu's conscripted army, the largest in sub-Saharan Africa, continues to crumble under a shortage of materiel and poor morale.

Observers in Addis Ababa expect the EPRDF to continue to put military pressure on the government, but it may not attempt to invade the capital, which is sure to be costly. Instead, the rebels expect that the hopelessness of the regime's future will inspire some army faction to eliminate Mengistu, thus opening the way for a political settlement. Another possibility is an assault on the road inland from the Red Sea port of Assab, which is the major remaining lifeline of Addis Ababa. If the road were cut, the capital would almost certainly fall.

The EPRDF says its plans are to hold power for a two-year "transitional" period, submitting political and economic questions to nationwide referendum. Western observers feel the group may have no choice, as it could not conceivably control southern Ethiopia, currently outside its sphere of influence, by force.

The Outside World:

Mengistu last year lost his best friend, the Soviet Union, which has withdrawn its military advisers from the Eritrean front and sharply reduced its donations of arms. Subsequently he made overtures to Western governments, especially the United States, and instituted a half-hearted liberalization of the Ethiopian economy.

The Americans have not responded, however, in part because it is pointless to make friends with a distasteful regime so near to its end. U.S. diplomats have been in close contact with the EPRDF, however, and recently extracted a pledge from the rebel group that American property and personnel in Addis Ababa would be left unharmed in the event of a rebel assault.

The Mood in Addis Ababa:

Despite that pledge, the U.S. government last month allowed embassy dependents and non-essential personnel to evacuate to safety in the United States. Many other diplomats considered the step unnecessary, and it may have been more a reflection of American nervousness, following a military evacuation of the embassy in neighboring Somalia last December, as well as general skittishness about terrorism, rather than a studied appraisal of the situation in the country.

U.S. sources, however, say the State Department's principal fear was not rebel attack but possible anarchy in Addis Ababa following Mengistu's fall. There is precedent for that: The ouster of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1975 was followed by the brutal "red terror." Many people expect a period of uncontrollable gunplay, mostly by Ethiopians directed at other Ethiopians.

"These people are big on settling scores," says one.

For all that, Addis Ababa, a lush, friendly city that is the quintessential capital remaining lively under siege, appeared largely devoid of tension during a visit last week. Its restaurants were full every night and its streets busy with traffic, despite an intensifying shortage of gasoline and food.

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