Ethiopian leader Abiy Ahmed. Picture: REUTERS/TIKSA NEGERI
Ethiopian leader Abiy Ahmed. Picture: REUTERS/TIKSA NEGERI

Addis Ababa — Eritrea has pulled back troops from its heavily militarised border with Ethiopia as a “gesture of reconciliation”, the progovernment Eritrean Press agency said on its Facebook page.

There was no immediate confirmation from the government in Asmara, but the move would be consistent with rapidly improving ties between the Horn of Africa neighbours, whose 1998 war killed tens of thousands and led to two decades of military stalemate.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki signed an agreement in Asmara on July 9 to restore ties and have since taken steps to put it into practice, including reopening embassies in each other’s countries.

“It is imperative for all those who care about the long-term stability and economic viability of the region to do everything they can to help the two countries move beyond the senseless war that wrought so much suffering on both peoples,” the agency said.

Earlier on Thursday, Ethiopia appointed its first ambassador to Eritrea in two decades, the state-affiliated Fana news agency said. An online report from Fana said Redwan Hussien, formerly Ethiopian ambassador to Ireland, had become Addis Ababa’s representative in Asmara.

Abiy became prime minister in April and said he wanted to implement a peace deal to end the war. The surprise decision was part of a broader effort to reform economics and politics in Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa and East Africa’s largest economy.

The government released thousands of political prisoners, a big step in a tightly controlled country ruled by a coalition of parties that drove the previous regime from power in 1991.

Better relations between the two countries could eventually give landlocked Ethiopia access to Eritrea’s ports and lay the groundwork for an easing of Eritrea’s political isolation. Both leaders have visited each other, and Isaias reopened his country’s embassy in Addis Ababa this week.

‘BIRD OF PEACE’: Ethiopian Airlines cabin crew at the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on July 18 2018. Picture: REUTERS/KUMERA GEMECHU
‘BIRD OF PEACE’: Ethiopian Airlines cabin crew at the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on July 18 2018. Picture: REUTERS/KUMERA GEMECHU

Ethiopia and Eritrea also resumed commercial airline flights for the first time in two decades, marking the latest phase in a whirlwind peace process between the former foes.

Ethiopian Airlines said Flight ET0312 had arrived in the Eritrean capital Asmara after a one-and-a-half hour flight from Addis Ababa — the latest sign of a thaw between the neighbouring countries that began just six weeks ago.

"The bird of peace has just flown to Asmara," the airline wrote on Twitter shortly after take-off from Bole International Airport. "This day marks a unique event in the history of Ethiopia and Eritrea," the airline’s CEO Tewolde GebreMariam said at a ceremony inaugurating the historic flight.

Overwhelming demand saw the African aviation giant operate two flights within 15 minutes of each other. "The fact that we are taking two flights at a time shows the eagerness of the people," said Tewolde.

An AFP journalist onboard the second flight said champagne was served to passengers in all classes, who toasted each other and posed for selfies shortly before take-off. Smiling flight attendants also handed out roses to the passengers.

Ethiopian Airlines, one of Africa’s fastest growing carriers, has said it would initially operate a once-a-day return flight between Addis Ababa and Asmara.

"With the demand we are witnessing, I think we’re going to increase the frequency to twice a day, thrice a day and even more," said Tewolde, adding that the opening of the Eritrean airspace to Ethiopian Airlines would also mean more efficient routes to the Middle East.

Among the passengers on the first flight was former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, whose shock resignation in February was the first step in a series of shake ups in Ethiopian politics and the Horn of Africa at large. "I knew one day it would happen," he said of the peace with Eritrea.

Hailemariam was succeeded in April by Ahmed, a former army officer and cabinet minister described by analysts as a "man in an extreme hurry".

The rapprochement is expected to provide an economic boost to both nations, offering booming Ethiopia — which currently channels its trade through Djiboutian ports — access to Eritrean shores.

Amnesty International has said the new-found peace should be a catalyst for change in Eritrea, one of the world’s most isolated nations. Since the end of the war, Afwerki has used the threat of Ethiopian aggression to justify repressive policies, including an indefinite national service programme the UN has likened to slavery.