The leaders of bitter foes Ethiopia and Eritrea met on Sunday, hugging and smiling for cameras in Eritrea\’s capital as officials on both sides heralded an end to a near 20-year military standoff.
Eritrea\’s long-time leader Isaias Afwerki welcomed recently elected Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at Asmara\’s airport in the morning before they departed for the State House for talks.
The meeting was the first of its kind between leaders of the two Horn of Africa neighbours and rivals since they fought a war in the late 1990s in which around 80,000 people died.
"This historic official visit, and the summit that will take place … heralds a new era of peace and cooperation," Eritrea\’s Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel wrote on Twitter.
"The yearning for peace was palpable (and) we’ll decidedly move forward for the good of our people," Abiy\’s chief of staff wrote on Twitter, alongside photos of cheering Eritreans on the streets of Asmara waving their own and Ethiopia\’s flags.
The scenes were unimaginable before last month, when an unexpected rapprochement began.
In early June, Ethiopia announced it would honour all the terms of a peace deal, suggesting the government might be ready to settle a border dispute.
Eritrea responded positively, sending a delegation to Addis Ababa last month.
BOLD REFORM AGENDA
Abiy, who took office in April, said during that meeting that Ethiopian Airlines would restart flights to Eritrea for the first time since the war, when the nations who share a common history severed diplomatic relations.
The 41-year-old leader is pushing other bold reforms to open Ethiopia up to the outside world after decades of security-obsessed isolation.
He has pardoned dissidents, lifted a state of emergency and pledged to partly privatise key state-owned firms.
Across the border, Eritrea is one of the world\’s most isolated and repressive nations and has long used the Ethiopian threat to justify hefty military spending and the long-term conscription that has caused hundred of thousands of young men to flee, mostly to Europe.
Observers say Eritrea has seen an opportunity in Abiy\’s reform agenda, largely because it is a stark departure from that of his arch rival: the Tigrayan People\’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ethnic Tigrayan party that has dominated the ruling EPRDF coalition – and by association Ethiopia and its economy – since the early 1990s.
Abiy is from the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia\’s largest, which led protests that brought about his predecessor\’s resignation in February.
TPLF hardliners oppose the sweeping changes he has pledged.
Two people were killed in a grenade blast at a massive pro-Abiy rally in Addis Ababa last month, with the finger of blame pointed at those opposed to his reform drive.
Beyond the officials\’ tweets, there were no official comments from either camp on the two nations\’ state broadcasters.
On Sunday afternoon, both played footage of the leaders embracing and throngs of Eritreans celebrating.