Ethiopian and Eritrean flags flutter during the welcoming ceremony of Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh and his delegation at the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (REUTERS Photo)
ADDIS ABABA, July 8 (Reuters): The leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea were meeting on Sunday morning in Eritrea’s capital, the once-warring nations’ state broadcasters reported, in a historic summit that could herald the end of a near 20-year military stand-off.
Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki warmly welcomed Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed when he landed at Asmara airport, before the leaders headed to the presidential palace.
The two men hugged and smiled, then Eritrean women rushed to embrace Abiy, footage from both state broadcasters showed.
Sunday’s meeting is the first of its kind in two decades between the leaders of the two neighbours and bitter rivals in the Horn of Africa.
They fought a war in the late 1990s in which around 80,000 people died.
The unexpected rapprochement with Eritrea has won international plaudits for Abiy, who took office in April and announced last month said he would honour the terms of a peace deal after the 1998-2000 war.
The 41-year-old is pushing other bold reforms to open Ethiopia up to the outside world after decades of security-obsessed isolation.
Ahead of Abiy’s arrival, Eritrea’s Information Minister Yemane Gebrmeskel wrote on Twitter: “This historic official visit, and the summit that will take place … heralds a new era of peace and cooperation.”
Abiy’s chief of staff wrote on Twitter on Sunday morning: “Our two nations share a history and bond like no other. We can now overcome two decades of mistrust and move in a new direction.”
Last month a high-level delegation from Asmara visited Addis Ababa for the first time since 1998, when conflict erupted over their disputed border. Until last month, the neighbours had no diplomatic relations.
Abiy has also pardoned dissidents, lifted a state of emergency and pledged to partly privatise key state-owned firms.
In more unprecedented actions, thousands Eritreans took to the streets to welcome Abiy, footage from Eritrea’s state TV showed, and the streets of the capital of one of the world’s most isolated nations were lined with Ethiopian flags.
The United States’ chief of mission in Asmara tweeted photographs of smiling Eritreans waving to the motorcade carrying the two leaders. Young people snapped photographs on their mobile phones.