JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Hailed as “the bird of peace,” the first commercial flight from Ethiopia to former rival Eritrea landed on Wednesday as air links resumed after the swift and stunning end of a 20-year state of war.
Eritrea’s information minister announced the arrival of the Ethiopian Airlines flight in the capital, Asmara, to a warm red-carpet welcome with the flags of both nations displayed. “Astonishing!” Eritrea’s ambassador to Kenya and Tanzania, Beyene Russom, said on Twitter.
The hundreds of passengers included people seeking to reunite with family, as well as former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who was embraced by Eritrea’s foreign minister on arrival.
The dramatic diplomatic thaw in one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts began last month when Ethiopia’s reformist new prime minister fully accepted a peace deal that ended a 1998-2000 border war that killed tens of thousands.
Breakthroughs quickly followed, with the leader of each country visiting the other and being welcomed with hugs and laughter. Eritrea’s embassy in Ethiopia opened this week and Ethiopia is poised to open its Asmara embassy, the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate reported Wednesday, citing the foreign ministry.
The international community, including the United States, has praised the end of hostilities. Telephone lines have been restored and economic links are being pursued as landlocked Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, eyes Eritrea’s Red Sea ports. Ethiopian Airlines on Tuesday said it would buy a 20 percent stake in Eritrean Airlines.
Eritrea, one of the world’s most reclusive nations, has been ruled by President Isaias Afwerki since it gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993. The state of war kept the country of 5 million in a constant state of military readiness with a system of compulsory conscription that sent thousands of people fleeing the country toward Europe and elsewhere.
Observers now wonder whether the end of fighting with Ethiopia will lead Eritrea to open up and embrace new freedoms. “Hopefully the end of the standoff will lead to meaningful reforms that will address human rights abuses in both countries,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement Wednesday, pointing out that Eritrea has no constitution and has not held elections since 1993.
One unresolved issue is the fate of the roughly 170,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers living in Ethiopia.
The expansion of tourism with the new flights brings a likely economic boost to Eritrea, which has faced years of U.N. sanctions over alleged support to extremists, which the government has denied. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed already has called for the sanctions to be lifted.
Eritrea’s capital last year was named to the UNESCO World Heritage list in appreciation of Asmara’s 19th and early 20th century modernist architecture, designed by colonial-era Italian architects, and its highland environment.