ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- Ethiopian rebels seized the presidential palace and tightened their control of the capital Tuesday, effectively wresting power from a crumbling Marxist government that ruled their country with an iron hand for 17 years.
In London, meanwhile, rebel representatives meeting under U.S. mediation agreed the largest rebel faction, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, would take control of the country pending formation of a provisional government.
After the warring factions reached a cease-fire agreement Monday during U.S.-mediated talks in London, waves of rebels entered Addis Ababa during the night amid reports of near anarchy in the city.
But despite the cease-fire, troops apparently loyal to Ethiopia's beleaguered government offered resistance, sparking heavy artillery, grenade and gunbattles.
After a fierce but short dawn battle, rebels broke into the vast palace compound and pushed out remnants of the 3,000-strong elite presidential guard. The fighting triggered a fire and explosions in an ammunition dump inside the palace gates.
After the battle, the ammunition dump smouldered and the compound was littered with abandoned tanks, military vehicles and artillery pieces. Only a few bodies were visible in the complex.
The U.S. Embassy reported Tuesday 'small arms fire is still heard throughout the capital, but it is diminishing. All embassy personnel are safe and on the embassy compound,' the State Department said in Washington.
The U.S. government advised American citizens to observe the 24-hour curfew announced by the rebels. Besides embassy workers, 267 U.S. citizens are living in Ethiopia.
The whereabouts of Lt. Gen. Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan, interim leader of Ethiopia's government, were not immediately clear Tuesday morning.
Tesfaye took over government after President Mengistu Haile Mariam fled the country a week ago, some 14 years after taking power in 1977. Mengistu rose to power after a military coup ousted Ethiopia's traiditional monarchy in 1974 and proclaimed the country a socialist state.
Military officials apparently fled the palace compound before rebels arrived. Airport security officials in Nairobi, Kenya said 30 to 60 high-ranking Ethiopian officers arrived in the Kenyan capital late Monday in three Soviet-built Ethiopian air force cargo planes.
One official who declined to be named said high-ranking officers in combat uniform were being detained at the airport, but gave no more details.
Addis Ababa appeared to be returning to relative calm by midday Tuesday, with only sporadic exchanges of fire audible in some parts of the city.
The takeover of the palace compound came after rebels Tuesday took over key buildings, ministries and intersections from government troops.
The dawn rebel attack on the presidential palace area led to a fire in the compound's ammunition dump. Huge columns of thick smoke reached into the sky as the dump burned for some 90 minutes, showering shrapnel and shattering nearby windows.
It was not clear whether the fire was started by rebels or government troops trying to prevent the rebel army from taking the ammunition dump.NEWLN: more
Rebels also took control of Addis Ababa radio station, broadcasting announcements telling people to remain indoors until further notice. But city residents seemed to welcome rebel forces, mingling with them in the streets.
The EPRDF rebel group said, 'Prevalent looting and brutal murder by disorganized soldiers and criminals on Monday forced our gallant forces to enter Addis Ababa,' the group said in a broadcast from its clandestine radio station.
'Another reason is the collapse of the government in Addis Ababa,' said the broadcast monitored in Nairobi, Kenya.
A rival rebel group, the Oromo Liberation Front, said in a clandestine radio broadcast it was not consulted when EPRDF went into the capital.
'It is unfortunate that no one consulted us before the decision to enter the city was taken,' the group said. It also called for a government comprising all tribes.
Herman Cohen, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, announced the cease-fire Monday shortly after preliminary peace talks between the interim government, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Front.
Cohen had said the United States was recommending rebel fighters enter the city as soon as possible to maintain order as Western diplomats in Addis Ababa said only a quick rebel takeover of the capital could prevent anarchy.
Tuesday, after several hours of discussion boycotted by Ethiopian Prime Minister Tesfaye Dinka, Cohen announced the rebels meeting in London agreed the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front would govern until a provisional government was established.
Cohen said the three rebel groups would meet again before July 1 to discuss the formation of a government.
'In the meantime, the EPRDF will assume state responsiblity in Addis Ababa, pending the formation of a broad-based, provisional government at the proposed conference,' he said.
Earlier, the U.S. mediator called for a broadly based provisional government and elections within a year to put the country on the path toward democracyafter years of war and famine.
Some 20,000 refugees from northern Ethiopia were reported to have crossed into the tiny neighboring country of Djibouti since rebels captured of the Red Sea port of Assab, 200 miles northeast of Addis Ababa, along with hundreds of defecting government troops. Six Ethiopian ships are reported to be anchored off Djibouti with 4,000 refugees on board.
About 15,000 Ethiopian soldiers and civilians meanwhile have crossed the border into Sudan, Sudanese officials said Tuesday. They said more than 150,000 other refugees were in western Ethiopia waiting to enter Sudan.
As many as 30,000 more Ethiopian students and government soldiers have crossed into northern Kenya and some have asked for asylum.
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The government Monday released 2,000 prisoners incarcerated in the capital.
It also called Monday evening on neighborhood militias not to fight but relinquish control to rebels entering the city. The call countered orders made two weeks ago by Mengistu, who told the militias to defend the capital at all costs.
The battle for control of Addis Ababa began Sunday night and by Monday morning local officials reported at least 150 deaths.
Monday, the clandestine radio of the EPRDF said its forces had surrounded the airports of Bole and Libetta in Addis Ababa and had shelled them with artillery.
'The EPRDF issues a strong warning that as from the time this statement is broadcast on the radio, no plane at all should leave or arrive at Addis Ababa,' the radio said.
Bole, the international airport, is 5 miles east of the capital. Libetta is 5 miles southeast of Addis Ababa.
Ethiopian Airlines early Monday canceled all flights into Addis Ababa and moved its operational base to Nairobi, Kenya.
A total of 20,000 refugees from northern Ethiopia were reported to have crossed into the tiny neighboring country of Djibouti since rebels captured of the Red Sea port of Assab, 200 miles northeast of Addis Ababa, along with hundreds of defecting government troops.
Six Ethiopian ships are reported to be anchored off Djibouti with 4, 000 refugees on board.
A total of 1,300 Ethiopian army officers, some with their families have taken refuge in eastern Sudan, the Sudanese ruling Revolutionary Command Council said Monday. It said thousands more were expected to do the same.