Eritrea’s president starts landmark trip to Ethiopia

Thousands gather in Addis Ababa for Isaias Afwerki’s visit after diplomatic breakthrough

Eritrea’s president Isaias Afwerki  walks with prime minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed upon his arrival at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photograph: Stringer/EPA

Eritrea’s president Isaias Afwerki walks with prime minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed upon his arrival at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photograph: Stringer/EPA

 

Eritrea’s president has arrived in Ethiopia for his first visit in 22 years amid a dramatic diplomatic thaw between the once-bitter rivals.

“This is a historic day for all of us,” president Isaias Afwerki said. “Anyone who thinks the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia are separated is considered as naive from now on.”

Thousands turned out in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa under tight security to welcome Mr Isaias at the outset of his three-day visit.

Ethiopia’s reformist new prime minister Abiy Ahmed made a similar visit to Eritrea’s capital last weekend, where he was welcomed by Mr Isaias with hugs and laughter.

Mr Abiy broke the ice last month by fully embracing a peace deal that ended a 1998-2000 border war between the two countries that killed tens of thousands and left families separated.

A series of diplomatic breakthroughs quickly followed, as one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts neared an end.

Some excited Ethiopians have compared the restoration of relations with one of the world’s most closed-off countries to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Telephone links have opened, with some Ethiopians calling complete strangers in Eritrea just to say hello, and the first scheduled Ethiopian Airlines flights to Eritrea begin on Wednesday.

A visibly moved Mr Abiy praised residents of the capital for their warm welcome of the Eritrean president, as they chanted “Isaias! Isaias!” and waved flags.

“I’m very emotional right now. I have no words to express how proud I am,” Mr Abiy told a lunch at the National Palace.

“Thank you for the genuine love that you all showed us,” Mr Isaias said in return.

The international community has embraced the reunion as a welcome development in a key, and often unstable, region along one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and across from the Arabian Peninsula.

The old Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa has undergone a rapid renovation and is expected to open during Mr Isaias’s visit.

The two leaders also are expected to attend a concert of about 25,000 people on Sunday featuring local artists. – AP