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Ethiopian rebel leader promises peace, elections

This country's new head of state, once a rigidly Marxist rebel fighting government troops from mountain hide-outs, arrived in the capital Saturday and charmed the city's diplomatic community with promises of democracy and international cooperation. Meles Zenawi, a 36-year-old former medical student, spoke to members of the international community after arriving in Ethiopia from London.

Dressed in a well-tailored tan suit and speaking impeccable if gently accented English, he said his army would move quickly to enhance security around the country _ which is still bedeviled by ethnic insurgence and rural banditry _ and facilitate the movement of relief supplies for as many as 7-million potential victims of famine.

Meles is the leader of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, whose army moved into Addis Ababa on Tuesday morning after the Marxist regime that had ruled the country for 17 years collapsed.

He told the audience of about 120 foreign diplomats that he and his cadre would serve as an interim government until a political conference, scheduled to take place by July 1, established a transitional government that would work toward democratic elections, perhaps in two years.

The transitional government would include members from all of the country's population groups, he said, noting that the previous government, headed for 14 years by Mengistu Haile Mariam, had been "run by a narrow clique for the benefit of the elite."

"We are not going to repeat this blunder," he said. "We know what this blunder has led us to" _ referring to decades of civil war, economic disaster and political stagnation. Although the People's Front currently maintains the only cohesive military force in the country, Meles said he abjured absolute power.

Most diplomats at the meeting seemed impressed, if wary, of Meles' promises. And Meles may have benefited by comparison with Mengistu, his frequently sullen and uncooperative predecessor as head of state.

"He's forthright, he wants to get things done, he wants the cooperation of the international community," said Francis Filleoul, the Canadian ambassador. "Obviously there's a bit of a honeymoon. When they actually come down to specifics it may not be so pleasant."

Reports here suggesting that U.S. officials presiding over government-rebel peace talks in London on Monday "invited" the rebel army to enter Addis Ababa to forestall a breakdown of public order inspired anti-American demonstrations Wednesday and Thursday.

"This was a decision of the (front), not the U.S. government," Meles said of the rebel advance.