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Former President Carter is Host to Ethiopian Talks This Week

September 4, 1989

ATLANTA (AP) _ Former President Carter, in the mode of his Camp David triumph, is staging talks this week between the Ethiopian government and Eritrean rebels on the 28-year-old war that has killed hundreds of thousands.

Ten years ago, Carter brokered the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. The sessions beginning Thursday have a more modest goal: getting the two sides to sit down together.

″In the history of political affairs, the most significant single step is the first meeting,″ Carter said last month in announcing the talks.

Previous attempts have failed to arrange talks between the Ethiopian government and the well-organized, heavily armed rebels fighting for independence for their province. But Carter, during a July visit to the East African nation, said the opportunity for peace has never been better.

The war has turned more than 1 million people into refugees. It has drained the Ethiopian economy, contributed to the suffering from famine and drought and led the government to bring in Soviet and Cuban military aid.

The two sides now have agreed that Carter should act as a neutral observer for the preliminary talks, which the participants say they hope will lead to more substantive meetings.

Neither Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam nor Isaias Afwerki, general secretary of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, will attend the meetings at the Carter Center. The center, opened in 1986, houses the Carter presidential library and museum as well as a think tank, a conference center and offices of foundations devoted to peace and public health.

Carter Center officials will not disclose the size of the negotiating teams, where the groups will stay or security plans. The meetings will be closed, and no one knows how long they will last.

Dayle E. Powell, the Carter Center’s director of conflict resolution programs, said extensive efforts have been made to ensure the negotiators feel comfortable during their stay.

″Not just their physical comfort, but the feeling of neutrality,″ she said. ″We are making every effort to provide for them a congenial environment in every aspect.″

For example, Carter Center personnel are careful not to term the Ethiopian- Eritrean conflict a ″civil war,″ which Ms. Powell said implies support for the government’s view of the struggle as a conflict within a single state.

Eritrean guerrillas, which share some Marxist principles with the Ethiopian government, believe their province at the northern tip of Ethiopia, with 3.5 million people, should be an independent nation.

An ancient Ethiopian kingdom, Eritrea has been ruled by the Ottoman Turks, the Italians and, finally, the British during World War II before becoming part of a federation with Ethiopia after the war. Fighting broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1961 and Ethiopia annexed Eritrea in 1962.

Eritrea has long been coveted territory because its location on the Red Sea gives Ethiopia its only ports.

Mengistu came to power after the 1974 ouster of Emperor Haile Selassie, who had ruled since 1930. With the change in power came an increase in the Soviet presence in Ethiopia and the withdrawal, during the Carter administration, of U.S. military aid and advisers.

The United States has continued to provide humanitarian aid. The Soviet Union recently has directed less attention to Ethiopia.

A second rebel group, the Tigre People’s Liberation Front, took up arms 14 years ago in a fight for increased autonomy in its province, which borders Eritrea. It also has made overtures for peace and accepted Carter as an observer, but that conflict will not be a part of this week’s talks.

The Ethiopia talks mark the second time this year Carter has been at the center of an major international event. Last spring he served as an observer in Panama’s elections and then briefed President Bush on the voting, which he said was rife with fraud.

Carter plans to play a background role in the Ethiopian talks. He and his center will serve mainly as a vehicle for bringing the opposing sides together, according to Ms. Powell.

Some of the principles of the 1979 Camp David talks can be applied here, Ms. Powell said. ″What worked at Camp David was that the parties met on neutral ground,″ she said. ″Neither side had the upper hand, and a third party was present with a sincere interest in resolution.″

Though the Camp David talks lasted 13 days, Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat actually met face-to-face for only two days, Ms. Powell said.

″President Carter literally shuttled back and forth,″ Ms. Powell said. ″We hope that part won’t be replicated. We hope they’ll meet in the same room.″


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