NAIROBI, Kenya -- Ethiopia's Marxist president, Mengistu Haile Mariam, resigned and fled the country Tuesday under pressure from rebels mounting a new offensive in a three-decade-old civil war that has left his people dirt-poor and starving.
Ethiopia's Cabinet, the Supreme Council, named popular Vice President Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan to replace Mengistu, said it was ready to establish a transitional government and sought Western help in arranging an immediate cease-fire with the three main rebel groups, the state-run Ethiopian News Agency said.
An immediate cease-fire was rejected by at least one of Ethiopia's three chief rebel groups, and a second said it now was not sure its representatives would attend U.S.-brokered negotiations in London aimed at ending the civil war. The talks are to begin May 17.
Mengistu, a virtual dictator who seized power in 1977, three years after Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed, is seen by the rebels as the personification of Ethiopia's problems, and his resignation is seen as a way to end the civil war.
The East African nation has been wracked by internal warfare since separatist Eritrean rebels began fighting in 1961. Rebel forces now control more than one-third of Ethiopia.
The news agency dispatch, carried by state-run Ethiopian National Radio and monitored in Nairobi, said Mengistu, who was seen flying out of the capital, Addis Ababa, about 8:30 a.m. local time, left the country to avoid more bloodshed. The capital was quiet, the broadcast said.
Mengistu's whereabouts were not known for certain, but usually reliable sources in Nairobi said Mengistu arrived in the Kenyan capital en route to the southern African nation of Zimbabwe, where Mengistu reportedly ownsa ranch.
The sources noted that on Monday, Zimbabwean Minister of Law and Justice Emerson Mangagwa delivered a message of friendship from his president, Robert Mugabe, to Menguistu in Addis Ababa.
Mengistu's departure came as a joint rebel force of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front and the secessionist Eritrean People's Liberation Front were mounting a major offensive against government troops in northern and western Ethiopia in the latest attacks of a 5-month-old drive.
In four days of intense attacks, the rebels evidently were trying to take strategic towns in this drive to bolster their negotiating position at the London peace talks. Rebels of the EPRDF, the EPLF and the Oromo Liberation Front will attend the negotiations.
In Washington, White House spokesman Roman Popadiuk welcomed Mengistu's departure and expressed hope that government and insurgent forces will now 'cease all military operations. ... We now hope that the door is open for the realization of peace and democracy in this tragic situation.'
A State Department official also said Mengistu's ouster will have a positive effect on the negotiations. 'Mengistu was so roundly hated that I think any change must be for the better,' said the official, who requested anonymity.
'We certainly hope that this is a positive development and that it will continue to be,' the State Department official said. 'But it's still the same government, and I don't know what effect that will have on the rebel groups.'
The government appealed to Western leaders to mediate with rebel groups to establish a cease-fire and bring an end to the civil war, the diplomat said.
The EPRDF, reached in London, said Mengistu's resignation was not in itself enough to end the civil war and would not say if it would still participate in the London peace talks.NEWLN: more