Lieut. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, who ruled Ethiopia with an iron hand for 14 years, resigned today and fled the country. Officials of his Government then called on the United States to try to arrange a settlement with Ethiopian rebels who were reported advancing on the capital.
Shortly after Colonel Mengistu’s departure at 9:30 A.M. on an Ethiopian Airlines plane bound for Zimbabwe, Prime Minister Tesfaye Dinka telephoned the charge d’affaires at the the United States Embassy here, Robert G. Houdek, to request that Washington relay a request to the guerrillas for an immediate cease-fire. Later in the day, airport officials in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, said Colonel Mengistu had arrived there.
American officials, who have played a growing role in seeking a negotiated solution to the civil war in recent months, agreed to pass on the message, but a representative of the rebels refused to call a halt to the offensive. Control to Vice President
Before he left, Colonel Mengistu, who held the title of President, handed control of the Addis Ababa Government to his Vice President, Lieut. Gen. Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan. But the departure of Colonel Mengistu appeared to herald the end of Africa’s hardest-line Marxist government, one held responsible for the deaths of thousands of Ethiopians in political purges and for the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of peasants to Government-founded cooperatives and state farms.
In the last year the Government moved to loosen restraints over the nation’s politics and economy, but the animosity it had created among a diverse collection of rural ethnic groups was too much to overcome.
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Like the hard-line Communist leaders of Eastern Europe, Colonel Mengistu was undermined by sharp reductions in Soviet military and economic aid in the last two years. A nearly complete cutoff of Soviet assistance since December eroded army morale, and one unit after another collapsed when confronted by a rebel offensive begun in February.
The rebels are reported to be within 50 miles of the capital and still advancing. The Second and Third Revolutionary Armies, Ethiopia’s best, appear to have taken flight.
United States officials in recent weeks had quietly suggested that Colonel Mengistu resign to achieve peace. Last month, Colonel Mengistu told former Senator Rudy Boschwitz, a special envoy of President Bush, that he would leave his post if it was the only way to keep Ethiopia united.
Senior Government officials said the Ethiopian President and his closest advisers decided Monday night that he should resign after concluding that it was the only way to avert the disintegration of the country.
“Everything is coming to an end because we have reached a stage where our military can’t do anything to stop the guerrillas,” said a senior Government official, who spoke on condition that he remain anonymous. “This is not the beginning of the end. It is the end of the end.”
The Mengistu Government faced two major rebel groups: the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and the Tigre People’s Liberation Front. Fighting for 31 Years
For 31 years, the Eritrean group has been fighting for the independence of the northern province, which borders the Red Sea and includes the critical port of Massawa. Massawa has been in rebel hands for more than a year and rebel forces are besieging the province capital, Asmara. During the 1970’s, the Eritrean group had a strongly Marxist ideology, but in recent years has softened its line.
The Tigre rebels, based in that province south of Eritrea, are fighting to overthrow the Mengistu Government. Active since the mid-1970’s, it won military control of Tigre several years ago. The Tigre group has a harder Marxist line than the the Eritreans.
In the last several months, the two groups have formed the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front, but have kept their separate identities and long-term goals.
The Government announced Colonel Mengistu’s departure in a brief radio broadcast at noon.
“In order to control the shedding of blood and return the nation to peace and progress, several individuals came to the understanding that the President should relinquish his power,” it said. “Therefore, he has relinquished his power to Vice President Lieut. Gen. Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan and left the country.” Would Work in Transition
The statement went on to suggest that the Government would “work for the formation of a transitional government.”
Senior officials in the Government said General Tesfaye, who only took office as Vice President last month, would be little more than a figurehead. They said Prime Minister Tesfaye, who is no relation to the general, would effectively run the Government and attempt to negotiate a settlement with the guerrillas.
General Tesfaye was military administrator for Eritrea province until he was appointed Vice President. He was described by diplomats as a non-ideological officer with a decent record on human rights. He is reportedly popular with most groups in the army.
Prime Minister Tesfaye is an economist and former Foreign Minister who has developed a good relationship with officials in the Bush Administration and Western Europe.
The immediate popular reaction to Colonel Mengistu’s departure appeared to be one more of surprise than relief. No demonstrations were reported in the capital or around the country, and the omnipresent signs and banners with Colonel Mengistu’s picture were left untouched.
“Mengistu is gone and that is a relief for us,” said Mugeta Tesfaye, a 39-year-old bank clerk, “but we will be lucky if we get a peaceful resolution.”
“How could this be good?” asked Abeb Tesfaye, an accountant. “Just as we are threatened, he leaves us.”
After Colonel Mengistu fled, rumors spread through the capital that the rebels were about to descend on the capital and kill everyone associated with the Government. Army troops patrolled the streets in open-bed trucks and jeeps with their assault rifles at the ready. During the day, citizens formed long lines at banks to withdraw their money and at local stores to hoard food. Schools and Government office buildings closed early, and the Government announced that the normal midnight-to-5 A.M. curfew would begin at 9 P.M.
Colonel Mengistu, whose age is placed between 46 and 53 in various references, was a member of a council of officers that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in a bloodless coup in 1974. He took sole control in 1977, when he personally killed several members of the junta at a meeting in the capital.
After making a tactical alliance with the Soviet Union and Cuba to repulse an attack by neighboring Somalia in the late 1970’s, he formed a Marxist-Leninist ruling party and set out to create a Communist system. No Respite for Government
But separatist guerrillas in Eritrea bled his Government with their persistent attacks. Then war, failed economic policies and a devastating drought in the mid-1980’s led to mass-scale hunger that left hundreds of thousands of people dead.
Critics charged that Colonel Mengistu worsened the famine by denying food to areas most opposed to his agrarian programs, which included fixed prices and forced crop and labor contributions by peasants.
His rule unraveled quickly since the guerrillas began coordinated attacks Thursday to the west, north and northeast of the capital. Today, Tigrean rebels accomplished their goal of cutting off the capital from Assab, the last port under Government control, by taking the northern highway town of Mille. As other Tigrean forces marched only 50 miles west of the capital, Eritrean rebels threatened to overwhelm Government troops in Asmara, the Eritrean capital.
Dawit Yohannes, a member of the rebels’ supreme council, said in a telephone interview from Washington that he welcomed Colonel Mengistu’s departure. But he added that the President’s resignation did not go far enough because it did not signify an end to the Government.
He said the rebels were ready to discuss entering into a coalition government with officials in the present Government at peace talks sponsored by the United States and scheduled to be held in London next week. “We have no intention of attacking the capital,” he added.
But Eritrean rebel leaders said they would only join a coalition government if a referendum is set for their province to decide on outright independence. The present Government has refused to consider any condition that would threaten the unity of Ethiopia. ‘What Will Impress Them?’
Kassa Kebede, foreign policy chief of the ruling Ethiopian Workers’ Party, said he was disappointed by the guerrilla response. “If the stepping down of the President doesn’t mean much to them, what will impress them?”
A Western diplomat predicted that the Government and guerrillas would attend the London talks, and that Addis Ababa “would have little left to bargain with.”
Colonel Mengistu apparently made his final decision to depart after President Robert G. Mugabe of Zimbabwe sent an envoy here on Monday to repeat his invitation that the Ethiopian leader move to Zimbabwe, where his family had already gone.
Colonel Mengistu reportedly invited many of his longest supporters to his palace for a farewell party on Monday night. He left for the airport this morning, unceremoniously, in a caravan of four vans surrounded by motorcycles.