Ethiopia and Eritrea agreed to reopen embassies and borders signalling an end to two decades of conflict between the neighbours as their leaders met for the first time in nearly two decades yesterday.
Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed, who has pushed through reforms which have taken the region by surprise, was warmly greeted by Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki as he stepped off his plane in Asmara in scenes that would have been unimaginable just months ago.
The unexpected thaw between adversaries deadlocked for two decades has come after Ethiopia agreed to abide by a 2002 United Nations boundary ruling and cede contested land to its neighbour.
The pair met for private talks on how to end one of Africa’s longest running conflicts. A potential reconciliation has raised hopes of reforms inside Eritrea itself, where government brutality has greatly added to Europe’s migrant crisis.
Mr Isaias has used the conflict as an excuse for repression and in turn created an exodus.
The country is on a permanent war footing and has lengthy universal conscription that is little better than slave labour.
Eritreans have made up one of the largest groups heading to Europe in recent years and in 2015 accounted for the biggest number of asylum applications made in the UK.
"Reconciliation would deprive President Isaias of an excuse for maintaining his country in a permanent state of military readiness" that has blocked Eritrea from developing any form of democracy, said Martin Plaut, a senior research fellow with the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London.
The visit comes only three months after Mr Abiy took power. Since then he has led a dramatic agenda of reforms, including freeing journalists and opposition figures from prison and opening up the state-run economy.
In May the Briton Andargachew "Andy" Tsege, one of the Ethiopian government’s most outspoken dissidents, was released after four years on death row.
But Mr Abiy’s decision to fully accept a peace deal that ended a border war between the two East African nations has been most surprising of all.
Ethiopia and Eritrea have not had diplomatic ties since the two-year war that killed 80,000 began in 1998. Skirmishing has continued.
Mr Abiy’s chief of staff, Fitsum Arega, said on Twitter that the visit aimed to "further deepen efforts to bring about lasting peace."
He shared photos of the leaders’ meeting and said Abiy, 42, was "very warmly received" by the 72-year-old Mr Isaias.
"Our two nations share a history and bond like no other," he said. "We can now overcome two decades of mistrust and move in a new direction."
Ethiopia’s foreign ministry called the visit "part of efforts to normalize relations with Eritrea" and said Mr Abiy was expected to talk with Eritrea’s leadership about "how to mend fences."
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Eritrea was once a province of Ethiopia that comprised its entire coastline. It voted to leave in 1993 after a bloody independence struggle and relations between the neighbours degenerated into war five years later.
Mr Abiy has already said Ethiopia’s national airline would soon begin flights to Eritrea, and has expressed interest in his landlocked country having access to Eritrean ports.
But his radical reforms have caused protest from some partners in his ruling coalition and last month he survived a grenade attack at a massive public rally in support of his agenda.