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Fighting Continues in Coup Attempt; Mengistu Returning Home

May 17, 1989

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) _ Loyal troops battled rebel soldiers in the capital Wednesday, and the president cut short a state visit to East Germany to try to crush the coup attempt. Reports said the mutineers control a key northern city.

The defense minister was slain by rebel soldiers in the revolt, which began Tuesday, and troops killed two rebellious generals, according to government sources and state radio. The total number of dead was not known.

Government sources said the rebellious generals were among five coup leaders and that soldiers and police hunted for the other three.

After a pitched tank and artillery battle on the outskirts and firefights in town Wednesday, Addis Ababa appeared calm and under control of the Marxist government of President Mengistu Haile Mariam - the Soviet Union’s strongest ally in Africa.

Reports from the war-torn north, however, indicate thousands of soldiers there support the coup bid and have control of Asmara, Ethiopia’s second- largest city. They were broadcasting messages declaring the coup a success on a frequency normally used by the government radio station there.

Addis Ababa Radio repeatedly reported the revolt was crushed.

″In Addis itself, it’s increasingly looking like a failed coup, but it appears to be a very different story in other parts of the country and especially in the north,″ said a Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Richard Boucher described the situation in Ethiopia as ″fluid and uncertain.″

He said it was not clear if the coup had been put down and cited reports Wednesdsay that fighting has broken out again among military units in Addis Ababa.

Mengistu, who has ruled this strategic Horn of Africa nation for 15 years, cut short a state visit to communist East Germany and arrived home Wednesday, Addis Ababa radio said. He was met by Prime Minister Fikre Selassie Wogderes and Vice President Fiseha Desta, it said.

The airport has been closed since Tuesday, in addition to the capital’s schools, businesses and shops. State radio urged residents to stay home.

Air traffic controllers Wednesday advised commercial and private pilots of the danger of being shot down by dissident troops over Asmara, capital of secessionist-minded Eritrea Province.

Asmara is headquarters of Ethiopia’s 2nd Army - 150,000 soldiers that diplomats and rebels believe support the coup.

The Western diplomat in Addis Ababa said it was not known whether the army has handed its arms to the secessionist Eritrean People’s Liberation Front or whether it was continuing to fight the government on its own.

A spokesman for the Eritrean rebels in Rome said, ″Eritrea is under the control of (rebellious elements in) the Ethiopian army, they have managed to dominate the situation ... they are fighting the regime.″

According to reports monitored in London by the British Broadcasting Corp., a radio station describing itself as the ″Voice of Ethiopia located in Asmara″ said Eritrean rebel forces had imposed a nighttime curfew on the town.

The BBC also monitored a report on the rebels’ ″Voice of the Broad Masses of Eritrea″ that quoted Asmara radio as saying Tuesday that Mengistu had been ousted.

The capital’s residents awoke to sounds of a heavy tank and artillery battle at a military compound on the outskirts.

″It was thunderous,″ said the diplomat. ″You could feel buildings shaking here in the city.

″After that, things calmed down for a while, but then there were several fairly severe firefights around town,″ he said. ″What we think was happening is that loyal troops were flushing out insurgents who were in hiding.

By midafternoon it was calm, he said. ″But the situation is obviously quite tense and the army is everywhere.″

An African military attache in Addis Ababa said the army garrison in Harar, eastern Ethiopia, also is supporting coup leaders and that negotiations are under way in Addis Ababa between loyalists and dissidents.

″Things are bad,″ the attache said. ″It is just that they (the government) are not saying.″

Addis Ababa Radio said Maj. Gen. Merid Negusie, the chief of staff, and the air force commander, Maj. Gen. Amha Desta, were killed Tuesday by loyalists.

The station made no mention of Wednesday’s fighting.

Government sources said they expect an official announcement soon of the death of the defense minister, Maj. Gen. Haile Giorgis Habte Mariam.

Government sources said troops are searching for coup plotters they identified as Industry Minister Fanta Belay, who used to command the air force; Aberra Abdualem, chief of operations in the Defense Ministry; and Kumalapchew Dejene, deputy commander of armed forces in Eritrea.

There have been persistent reports of military unrest in Ethiopia, especially among field commanders who reportedly believe the government has not supported them adequately in the 28-year-old northern civil war.

The military deposed Emperor Haile Selassie in a coup on Sept. 12, 1974. After factional fighting within in the armed forces, Mengistu, then an army major, seized power.

Mengistu inherited the northern insurrections, in which his forces recently have suffered humiliating defeats.

The Ethiopian army is Africa’s best equipped and the continent’s largest, although many of its quarter of a million troops are unwilling conscripts.

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