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Cubans, curfews, Kalashnikovs calm Eritrea

The flowered villas, the neatly swept avenues and the terraces cafes of this former colonial Italian city glow in the complacement warmth of a pastel-pink sunset.

Young, well-dressed Eritrean men and women casually stroll the palm-lined parks under the watchful stares of giant posters of Lenin, Engels, and Marx. Civilian Russian advisers in white shirt-sleeves and flanked by their wives lean out of the windows of their guarded high-rise apartments downtown.

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Within 30 minutes, however, this air of provincial tranquility will abruptly end. The streets will empty of inhabitants and armed jeeps will emerge to ensure that the 7 p.m. curfew is respected.

Despite the military setbacks of the Eritrean liberation movements against communist-led government forces over the past two years, separatists reportedly still launch occasional urban attacks in Asmara against the Addis Adaba regime. Sandbagged observation posts are stationed on the roofs most banks and administrative buildings, while soldiers toting Kalashnikov assault rifles patrol the entrances and carefully search visitors.

As with the fighting in the Ogaden, the nearly 20-year-old intermittent civil war in Eritrea appears to have wound down considerably. The Ethiopians now control nearly every town in this strikingly beautiful, semiarid province. Nafka, in the extreme northwestern corner of Ethiopia, remains the sole rebel-held Eritrean urban stronghold.

According to unconfirmed reports, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Ethiopian troops with Soviet and Cuban logistic support are at present poised for a last decisive offensive to drive the insurgents into the mountains.

Although the Ethiopians like to claim that the liberation movements -- themselves ravaged by bitter internecine strife -- have been virtually destroyed militarily, it is apparent that government forces do not feel secure outside town perimeters. Guerrillas still roam the countryside with ease.

Road travel between such towns as Keren, Humera, and Massawa is considered unsafe unless protected by armed convoys. The journey from the Red Sea port of Massawa, badly shelled three years ago at the height of the insurgency and still lying in ruins, to Asmara normally takes three hours. According to one recent traveler, it now takes several days to complete the trip with convoys crawling along as soldiers patrol up to a half mile on either side to prevent ambushes.

Hungry for foreign humanitarian and economic assistance, the Ethiopians anxiously impress upon one that the fighting is nearly over and that it is time to consider peaceful reconstruction. Government officials admit that "bandits" still pose serious problems but they insist that increasing numbers of Eritreans , including exiles in neighboring Sudan, are tired of the dragging conflict.

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"They have come to realize that the government is not some horrible monster out to repress its citizens," said one highly placed official in Asmara. "We are prepared to give them limited autonomy, such as local Eritrean councils. In fact, they can have as much independence as they want as long as they do not endanger the unity of Ethiopia."

Under an amnesty proclaimed last year by Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, Ethiopia's Marxist-leaning head of state, several thousand Eritreans have returned in recent months from Sudan.Officials of Ethiopia's relief and rehabilitation commission confidently predict that tens of thousands more will follow suit once the news gets back that reprisals are not the order of the day.

Returnees, however, are expected to remain up to three months in special "integration" camps (read "political re-education" camps) before returning home. "This is absolutely necessary," said Girma Gabre Jesus, regional commissar in Eritrea for ideological affairs. "Returnees must understand the changes our country has gone through since the [1974] revolution."

Both Sudan and Ethiopia have steadily sought to improve relations over the past year. Last November, Sudan President Gaafar Nimeiry made a six-day visit to Addis Ababa to discuss bilateral problems. He is particularly interested in a solution to the Eritrean crisis as it would greatly ease the economic strains on his country, which is forced to care for some 300,000 refugees.

As a result, Nimeiry is pressuring the Eritrean liberation movements, which operate political offices and military supply bases in Sudan, to negotiate with Addis Ababa. In a departure from its previous intransingent policy of independence only, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), considered the strongest of the guerrilla groups, has called for a referendum among Eritreans to decide their future. Eritreans, the EPLF announced late last year, must vote whether to continue with the struggle for full independence,opt for local autonomy, or revert to the autonomous statehood of the 1950s in federation with Ethiopia.

Nimeiry seems to favor a federal solution. Since the end of Sudan's brutal 18-year civil war in 1972, ironically through the mediation of former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, federalism has more or less kept peace in the land. The Addis Ababa regime, however, is wary about the handing down too much autonomy, as this might lead to the disintegration of Ethiopian territorial integrity.

In Eritrea, as in other parts of the country, the government seeks to assert national unity by permitting only amharic, the first official language, to be tuaght at school. English is used as a second language of instruction. Local tongues are taught at the community level as part of the government's attempts to eradicate the country's 90 percent illiteracy.

"We have at least eight major languages in Ethiopia," explained Gabre Jesus. "It is vital to have a national language so that we can all communicate with each other."

But many Eritreans, who do not hide their loathing for the Addis Ababa regime , regard Amharic as the language of Ethiopian imperialism. "The Ethiopians refuse to respect us and are enforcing Amharic to bring us to heel, noted an Eritrean student."They will not allow us to learn Tigrean [the language of most Eritreans] at school because it is our culture. And they don't want us to have a culture."

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