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Leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea meet for first time in two decades

H.E. Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed with H.E. President Isaias Afwerki at Asmara International Airport, July 8, 2018

Leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea meet for first time in two decades


With laughter and hugs, the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea met on Sunday for the first time in nearly two decades amid a rapid and dramatic diplomatic thaw.

Ethiopia’s reformist prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, arrived in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. A live broadcast by Eritrea’s state television showed him being greeted at the airport by President Isaias Afwerki — a scene unthinkable just months ago.

The two countries fought a war in the late 1990s in which about 80,000 people died.

On Sunday, crowds danced and sang for the leaders, and Asmara’s streets were hung with Ethiopian and Eritrean flags. Mr. Abiy and Mr. Afwerki traveled across Asmara in a large motorcade as people wearing T-shirts with photos of both leaders cheered.

The men later met one on one, with a smiling Mr. Abiy leaning toward Mr. Afwerki in front of a wall decorated with their portraits.

The visit comes a month after Mr. Abiy surprised people by fully accepting a 2000 peace deal that ended a two-year border war between the two countries.

Ethiopia and Eritrea have not had diplomatic ties since the war began in 1998, with Mr. Abiy himself fighting in a town that remains contested today. The countries have skirmished since then in one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts.

Mr. Abiy’s chief of staff, Fitsum Arega, said on Twitter that the visit aimed to “further deepen efforts to bring about lasting peace.” He shared photos of the leaders’ meeting and said Mr. Abiy, 41, was “very warmly received” by the Mr. Afwerki, 72.

“Our two nations share a history and bond like no other,” he said. “We can now overcome two decades of mistrust and move in a new direction.”

Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry called the visit “part of efforts to normalize relations with Eritrea” and said Mr. Abiy was expected to talk with Eritrea’s leadership about “how to mend fences.”

Estifanos Afeworki, Eritrea’s ambassador to Japan, said on Twitter that “no leader has received such a warm welcome like today in Asmara in the history of Eritrea.”

Ethiopians expressed welcome shock at the meeting, which was shown live by Ethiopia’s state broadcaster.

“Historic ... the beginning of the end. The glass ceiling has been broken,” one resident, Shewit Wudassie, wrote on Facebook. Another Facebook user, Djphat Su, wrote: “Am I dreaming or what?”

The decision to fully accept the peace deal was the biggest and most surprising change yet announced by Ethiopia’s prime minister, who took office in April and quickly set off a wave of reforms, freeing journalists and opposition figures from prison, opening up the state-run economy and unblocking hundreds of websites after years of antigovernment demonstrations demanding more freedoms.

Days after the announcement, Eritrea’s leader noted “positive signals” from Ethiopia and sent the first official delegation in two decades to “gauge current developments directly and in depth” to plan future steps. Ethiopia used the visit to announce that Ethiopian Airlines would soon begin flights to Eritrea.

While Ethiopia is Africa’s second most-populous nation and one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, Eritrea is one of the world’s most closed-off nations, ruled by Mr. Afwerki since gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after years of rebel warfare. But the two countries share close cultural ties.

Eritrea has become a major source of migrants fleeing toward Europe, Israel and other African nations in recent years as human rights groups have criticized its harsh military conscription laws.

Observers of the diplomatic thaw have asked whether peace with Ethiopia would lead Eritrea to loosen up and drop its long defensive stance.

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