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Ethiopian leader in Eritrea for landmark summit

July 8, 2018

After a 20-year-long border dispute, the two leaders in the Horn of Africa have met in the Eritrean capital, Asmara. Land-locked Ethiopia is to start using Eritrea's port, the Ethiopian premier said in televised remarks.

 Abiy Ahmed beim Staatsbesuch in Eritrean President Afwerki puts his hand on Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy's back moments after Abiy deplaned.
Image: Twitter/@fitsumaregaa

The greeting between Ethiopia's newly elected reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and neighboring Eritrea's longtime president Isaias Afwerki in Eritrea's capital Asmara has been broadcast live in both countries. It is a scene that seemed improbable just a couple months ago.

Abiy's chief of staff, Fitsum Arega, posted photos of the leaders' meeting at the airport and said Abiy was "very warmly received" by the 72-year-old Afwerki, who has ruled Eritrea since it gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a years-long rebel insurgency.

Eritrea's Information Minister Yemane G. Meskel tweeted photos of the leaders and the cheering crowds as the leaders made their way through the capital, Asmara, in a motorcade.

After their meeting, Abiy said land-locked Ethiopia would start using the port of Eritrea: "Ethiopia will resume using Eriteria’s port," Abiy said in remarks broadcast by state broadcasters while both leaders attended a dinner.

Direct international telephone connections were restored between the two countries for the first time after two decades, Abiy's chief of staff, Fitsum Arega, said on Twitter on Sunday.

The two premiers held talks during the day
The two premiers held talks during the dayImage: Twitter/@fitsumaregaa

Ending a feud

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is opening up Ethiopian society and trying to move his country past its long-running feud with its northern neighbor which borders the Red Sea.

The two sides fought a vicious border war from 1998 to 2000 that killed tens of thousands. Since then the two sides have remained at odds over the border. But the 42-year-old Abiy changed that by agreeing to finally accept the border outline shortly after taking office in April this year.

Abiy's chief of staff said that the visit will "further deepen efforts to bring about lasting peace."

Ethiopian reforms

While some Ethiopians, particularly those along the border, still oppose the improving ties, many want peace.

In addition to burying past differences with Eritrea, Abiy has embarked on a series of domestic reforms, releasing journalists and opposition figures who have been imprisoned, opening up the state-run economy and unblocking hundreds of websites.

The reforms come after years of anti-government protests demanding more freedoms.

Eritrea's Afwerki noted the "positive signals" from Ethiopia shortly after Abiy took office and sent an official delegation — the first in two decades — to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to "gauge current developments directly and in depth," and to plan further steps if possible.

While Ethiopia is Africa's second most populous country, and has a rapidly growing economy, tiny Eritrea remains one of the world's most isolated nations. 

Despite their rocky past the two countries share close cultural ties. Some hope that Abiy's reform movement will compel Afwerki to open up Eritrean society.

bik/ls (AP, AFP, dpa)

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