Thursday, December 29, 2005


Languishing in an Addis embassy. By Peter Biles BBC News.

The Italian embassy in Addis Ababa lies in a peaceful quarter of Ethiopia's bustling capital. In the hills to the north-east, the vast, residential compound can be found at the end of a stony track, surrounded by woods filled with eucalyptus trees. It seems almost idyllic, but it is not a place in which to spend 15 years.
On the night of 27 May, 1991, four members of the Dergue, the murderous regime of the Marxist dictator Col Mengistu Haile Mariam, slipped into the Italian embassy under the cover of darkness, and sought political asylum. In the face of a rebel offensive, Mengistu had fled a country a week earlier. His demoralised conscript army was on the point of collapse, and government ministers were hatching their escape plans. Earlier that same day, the acting head of state, Tesfaye Gebre Kidan, who had held office for just seven days, told the US government that law and order was breaking down and he could no longer control the armed forces.
With peace talks underway in London, Washington then gave the fighters of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), led by Meles Zenawi, the green light to enter Addis Ababa and take over. At the Italian embassy, Mr Tesfaye was joined by the foreign minister, Berhanu Bayeh, and two other officials, Addis Tedla and Hailu Yimenu. However, little did the four men realise then, that the embassy was to become a place of imprisonment for them, rather than salvation.
For nearly 15 years now, the Italian government has reluctantly played host to the unwanted guests. No-one from outside the embassy is allowed access to them. The Italians have always refused to surrender the men to the current Ethiopian government led by Mr Meles because Ethiopia still maintains the death penalty. Two of the four Dergue officials in the embassy have died in circumstances that have never been fully explained. Hailu Yimenu is reported to have committed suicide in 1993, and Tesfaye Gebre Kidan is rumoured to have been hit over the head with a bottle by one of his colleagues in 2004.
So Berhanu Bayeh and Addis Tedla continue to lead a quiet life of long days, under Italian protection. The two surviving Ethiopians have become a diplomatic embarrassment.
If they ever left the Italian embassy, they would almost certainly be arrested by the Ethiopian authorities and charged, like other members of the old regime. On the streets of Addis Ababa, the younger generation is growing up with few memories of those dramatic events of May 1991. So Mengistu's forgotten men sit tight, with plenty of time to reflect on the night they sought Italian hospitality all those years ago.


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