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Fall of Ethiopia imminent, Eritrean rebel says

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- A leader of the Eritrean rebels said Thursday victory in the 30-year-old war for independence in Ethiopia is near with only pockets of resistance from the government of former President Mengistu Haile Mariam, who fled earlier this week to Zimbabwe for political asylum.

Isaias Afwrki, secretary-general of the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front, said in Sudan that defeat of the regime in Addis Ababa is expected 'in a couple of days. It is only a technical matter.'

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The EPLF forces, which have been fighting for 30 years for independence for the northern Red Sea province of Eritrea, are concentrated in the northern region and are besieging the city of Asmara, 230 miles north of Addis Ababa, he said.

The Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front, which joined with the EPLF in March in a blitzkrieg that has left almost half of the country in rebel control, is within 20 miles of Addis Ababa and government troops are reportedly falling back without resisting, officials said.

Afwerki arrived in Sudan's capital Khartoum from the northern front to talk with Sudanese officials on their role in bringing peace to the east African region. He was en route to London for peace talks May 27.

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With reference to the future for Eritrea, Afwerki said, 'We are leaving the matter to the Eritrean people who have been suffering for the last 30 years from famine and dictatorship.'

He said relief continues to reach up to 2 million people affected by drought in the region. International agencies are sending relief to the EPLF-held port of Masawa, 240 miles north of the capital.

With victory at hand and the appearance of rain in the region, his people might soon celebrate both the end of famine and dictatorship, Afwerki said.

In Addis Ababa, the state-run Ethiopian News Agency said Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe to save his skin. And Radio Addis Ababa announced that Mengistu did not resign and was not sacked, but chose to leave while he could.

The Council of State, which referred to the former president in derogatory terms, said Mengistu left early Tuesday on the pretext of a routine inspection at a military camp in southern Ethiopia, then ordered the jetliner to alter course for Nairobi, Kenya, the radio said. Mengistu flew on to Harare, Zimbabwe, the same evening and is applying for political asylum, according to press reports.

The announcement, which implied that Mengistu's colleagues did not know of his plans, contradicts a statement by Prime Minister Tesfaye Dinka that Mengistu was pressured to quit to avoid further bloodshed in the savage war.

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Mengistu's portraits are being removed from government offices and wherever else they were hung. In Addis Ababa, workers also demolished a huge statue of Lenin that was erected by Mengistu in the days when he wooed the Soviet Union and vocally embraced a form of Marxism.

Mengistu ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist for 14 years while millions died in civil wars and, in 1984, in one of the worst famines of the century, a famine that has been revisited upon the country.

Vice President Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan was elected president by the council and made his initial public appearances as president on television and radio Wednesday night, repeating the government's commitment to an immediate cease-fire and the establishment of a transitional government.

He said details of the transitional government could be sorted out in London on May 27 when the government meets with the EPLF, the EPRDF and the Oromo Liberation Front, a third rebel group.

'All political groups will be represented so as to bring peace to the country which the people are so eagerly yearning for,' Gebre-Kidan said.

University and college students in Ethiopia have appealed to the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to help end the civil war.

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They sent identical messages Wednesday to the five countries through their embassies in Addis Ababa, urging them to live up to the pledge contained in the charters of the world body to 'save people from the scourge of war.'

In Harare, Zimbabwe, Mengistu is to apply formally for political asylum under U.N. rules, the government-controlled Herald newspaper said.

Mengistu has close tiesto President Robert Mugabe and government officials, who asked not to be identified, said Mengistu has been at a ranch the former Ethiopian leader owns in Norton, about 30 miles southwest of Harare, since Wednesday morning.

Mengistu's wife is trying to place her two sons at the exclusive St. John's College school in Zimbabwe.

Reports from Ethiopia said the government Thursday fired Ambassador Asrat Wolde, Mengistu's uncle, from his post in Harare for meeting the deposed president's plane and accommodating him at the Ethiopian Embassy.

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