Eritrean leader visits Ethiopia as dramatic thaw continues

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Eritrea’s long-serving 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 the capital Addis Ababa under tight security to welcome Mr Isaias, whose three-day visit is the latest step in ending a long state of war.

Ethiopia’s reformist new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made a similar visit to Eritrea’s capital last weekend, welcomed by Mr Isaias with hugs and laughter.

The 42-year-old broke the ice last month by fully embracing a peace deal that ended a 1998-2000 border war 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, with their chants of “Isaias! Isaias!” and flag-waving.

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

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