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First commercial flight from Ethiopia to ex-rival Eritrea touches down

The move follows the surprisingly swift end to 20 years of a state of war between the two countries.

Hailed as “the bird of peace”, the first commercial flight from Ethiopia to former rival Eritrea has landed as air links resumed after the extraordinary end to 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 flight’s 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.

Hopefully the end of the stand-off will lead to meaningful reforms that will address human rights abuses in both countries. Human Rights Watch

Eritrea’s embassy in Ethiopia opened this week and Ethiopia is poised to open its Asmara embassy, according to reports.

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 said it would buy a 20% 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 five 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 stand-off will lead to meaningful reforms that will address human rights abuses in both countries,” Human Rights Watch said, 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 UN sanctions over alleged support to extremists, which the government has denied. Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed has already called for the sanctions to be lifted.

Eritrea’s capital last year was named on 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.

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