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Mengistu Legacy: Poverty and War

War persists after dictator's flight, but London peace talks are still on as rebels near capital

ETHIOPIA'S now-exiled dictator will likely live in style, riding in a Rolls-Royce and enjoying the company of his family, probably in Zimbabwe. But, after more than a dozen years of repressive and brutal rule, Mengistu Haile Mariam leaves behind a country that is one of the poorest in the world, where there is starvation, and where a 30-year civil war continues. Peace talks are, however, scheduled to begin Monday, in London.

Fighting that disrupted food relief to drought victims in the north continued after Mr. Mengistu's departure. Rebels claimed yesterday to be within 32 miles of the capital, Addis Ababa.

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The new government says it wants a cease-fire. But rebel spokesmen say they cannot be sure that a change of president in Ethiopia means a change of policies. Still, all sides have renewed their commitment to attend the London talks.

Mengistu began laying plans for flight even as his demoralized troops, including some of his best units, suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of the rebels.

During the past few months, Mengistu named his uncle ambassador to Zimbabwe, sent his family there, and enrolled his children in schools under assumed names, says a Western diplomat in Addis Ababa. He even began flying his cars there - including the Rolls Royce once used by the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, whom he helped depose in 1974.

But as he was making these preparations, his military was engaging in a campaign of "summary execution of civilians" in the government-controlled regions around Asmara, in Eritrea Province in the north, according to a report by Africa Watch, a London and New York-based human rights group.

Africa Watch also accuses the government of detaining people in government-held towns on suspicion of sympathizing with the rebels.

The report also criticizes the rebels. It says the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) has "conducted a sporadic campaign of assassination against people who allegedly 'collaborate' with the Ethiopian government."

And it blames the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), also based in the north, for calling on people in its newly taken provinces to capture and take "appropriate action" against escaping government commanders, several of whom were caught and killed by local residents.

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But interviews with Westerners in Addis Ababa last week, indicate the EPRDF has generally treated well the people and property in conquered areas. Government teachers, for example, have been allowed to leave the area. And a government power plant supplying some of the power to the capital was kept running.

Africa Watch acknowledges "generally good treatment of civilians by the EPRDF and EPLF," as well as government tolerance of an "unprecedented open debate on the issue of peace."

In April, Ethiopian Prof. Mesfin Wolde-Mariam drafted a peace plan that called on the Mengistu government to step down and open the way for a transitional government to try to end the war. He managed to get his plan to Mengistu, says an Ethiopian official. The aim, Mr. Mesfin says, was to "turn [the conflict] from a military into a political combat."

Contacted yesterday, Mesfin said that Mengistu's departure opens the possibility for a better dialogue between the government and rebels.

Robert Houdek, the United States charge d'affaires, said yesterday that with Mengistu's departure "there is a realistic hope that progress can be made in the London talks."

Mesfin, a professor of geography at Addis Ababa University, said the talks could end quickly, however, if the EPLF presents its 30-year demand for secession of Eritrea, a demand as strongly opposed by the new government as it was by Mengistu.

But both Ethiopian and diplomatic sources in Addis Ababa say the EPLF may be willing to postpone its demand for several years, giving Ethiopia time to achieve peace and stability. A period of peace would allow Eritrea to divert some of its money and attention to developing that region.

Peace could also benefit the Tigre-based EPRDF. Since its predecessor, the Tigre People's Liberation Front, began its military campaign, farming has been disrupted, and investment in agriculture has declined sharply.

In Ethiopia as a whole peace would provide the opportunity for international donors to help meet "pent up relief and development needs of the country," says a Western diplomat in Addis Ababa.

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