The first commercial flight from Ethiopia to Eritrea arrived on Wednesday as air links were restored after the swift and stunning end of a 20-year state of war.
Eritrea’s information minister announced the arrival of what Ethiopian Airlines called “the bird of peace” in the capital, Asmara, to a warm red-carpet welcome with the flags of both nations displayed.
Those on board included people seeking to reunite with family long separated by the conflict, as well as former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who was met with an embrace by Eritrea’s foreign minister.
The dramatic diplomatic thaw began last month when Ethiopia’s reformist new prime minister fully embraced 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. Eritrea’s embassy in Ethiopia opened this week, and Ethiopia is poised to open its Asmara embassy, the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate reported Wednesday, citing the foreign ministry.
The international community, including the United States, has praised the end of one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts. Telephone lines have been restored and economic links are being pursued as landlocked Ethiopia eyes Eritrea’s Red Sea ports.
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 standoff will lead to meaningful reforms that will address human rights abuses in both countries,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement Wednesday, pointing out that Eritrea has no constitution and has not held elections since 1993.
The expansion of tourism with the new flights brings a likely economic boost to Eritrea, which has faced years of U.N. sanctions over alleged support to extremists, which the government has denied. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed already has called for the sanctions to be lifted.
Eritrea’s capital last year was named to 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.