Ethiopian rebels seize government's last port


ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- Separatist guerrillas captured the last port controlled by the Ethiopian government yesterday, enabling the rebels to choke off fuel and other vital supplies to the crumbling government and very likely assuring its downfall within days.

Diplomats said the taking of the Red Sea port of Assab, which was confirmed by government officials, means that the guerrillas will almost certainly be able to dictate terms for a settlement at peace talks in London arranged by the United States. The talks are due to begin Tuesday.

With the government's position greatly weakened by the capture of the port and by a separate offensive that has brought another rebel group within 10 miles of the capital, government negotiators said before departing for the talks that they would seek democratic elections.

The government now has only one minor road and a railroad to ports in neighboring Djibouti for transporting supplies to the capital. Addis Ababa, already short of fuel, will be paralyzed within days, diplomats said.

"Both hands are on the throat and choking," said a senior Western diplomat. "This means all Eritrea is essentially under guerrilla control."

The government's position has deteriorated rapidly since Tuesday, when the country's longtime ruler, President Mengistu Haile Mariam, fled to Zimbabwe.

Since then, two loosely allied guerrilla groups opposing the government -- one a separatist organization based in Eritrea province, the other a non-separatist, anti-government group based in Tigre -- have won major victories.

Fighters of the Tigrean group, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, have taken positions surrounding Addis Ababa, forcing the retreat of the government's best fighting units and capturing up to half the army. The Eritrean People's Liberation Front has taken the offensive in the north, taking the Eritrean capital, Asmara, on Friday and Assab yesterday. A third, smaller rebel group based in the Oromo tribe is fighting alongside the two other groups.

The Bush administration, which has helped mediate between the government and the guerrillas, has arranged the peace talks in an attempt to avert a battle for the capital and a famine that many fear is inevitable if fighting continues.

Government reports from Assab were vague because telephone communications were cut, but it appears that the last remnants of the 2nd Revolutionary Army surrendered without putting up major resistance.

The Eritrean rebels had laid siege to the port for months but had not been able to launch a frontal assault because the air force could bomb and strafe the surrounding plain.

But the effectiveness of the air force has been severely reduced after several aircraft were downed in the last few days.

As the rebels continued their advance, backed by captured tanks and artillery, most European embassies evacuated their personnel. The U.S. Embassy evacuated all but a few essential diplomats weeks ago. It urged those Americans still in Addis Ababa Friday to "stay indoors and keep their heads down."

Around the capital, there appeared to be a lull in the fighting yesterday as people attended churches and mosques to pray that negotiations might end the war. Sporadic gunfire could be heard around the city last night.

The rebels have agreed to U.S. pleas that they not interfere with an airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

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