"A brotherly embrace," says Eritrean minister as Ethiopian leader Abiy Ahmed becomes the first head of government to visit Eritrea in a dramatic diplomatic thaw aimed at ending one of Africa's longest-running border disputes.

In this grab taken from video provided by ERITV, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, centre right is welcomed by Erirea's President Isaias Afwerki as he disembarks the plane, in Asmara, Eritrea, Sunday, July 8, 2018.
In this grab taken from video provided by ERITV, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, centre right is welcomed by Erirea's President Isaias Afwerki as he disembarks the plane, in Asmara, Eritrea, Sunday, July 8, 2018. (AP)

With laughter and hugs, the leaders of longtime rivals Ethiopia and Eritrea met for the first time in nearly two decades on Sunday amid a rapid and dramatic diplomatic thaw aimed at ending one of Africa's longest-running conflicts.

Ethiopia's reformist new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed arrived in Eritrea's capital and a live broadcast by Eritrean state television showed President Isaias Afwerki greeting him at the airport in scenes unthinkable just months ago. 

"A brotherly embrace," Eritrea's information minister said on Twitter, sharing photos. "A truly historic moment with memorable watershed events."

Crowds danced and sang for the leaders, and Asmara's streets were hung with Ethiopian and Eritrean flags. 

Abiy and Afwerki traveled across the capital in a large motorcade as people wearing T-shirts with their photos cheered. 

The leaders then met one-on-one, with a smiling Abiy leaning toward Afwerki under a wall hung with their portraits. 

A 'move in a new direction'

The visit comes a month after Abiy surprised people by fully accepting a peace deal that ended a two-year border war between the two East African nations that killed tens of thousands. 

Ethiopia and Eritrea have not had diplomatic ties since the war began in 1998, with Abiy himself fighting in a town that remains contested today, and the countries have skirmished since then.

Abiy's chief of staff, Fitsum Arega, said on Twitter that the visit aims to "further deepen efforts to bring about lasting peace." 

He shared photos of the leaders' meeting and said Abiy was "very warmly received" by the 72-year-old Afwerki.

"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."

Talks on 'how to mend fences'

Ethiopia's foreign ministry called the visit "part of efforts to normalise relations with Eritrea" and said Abiy was expected to talk with Eritrea's leadership about "how to mend fences."

One Eritrean diplomat, its ambassador to Japan Estifanos Afeworki, said on Twitter that "no leader has received such a warm welcome like today in Asmara in the history of Eritrea."

Ethiopians expressed welcome shock at the meeting, which was shown live by Ethiopia's state TV.

"Historic ... the beginning of the end. The glass ceiling has been broken," one resident, Shewit Wudassie, wrote on Facebook. Another Facebook user, Djphat Su, wrote: "Am I dreaming or what?"

The decision to fully accept the peace deal was the biggest and most surprising reform yet announced by Ethiopia's 42-year-old prime minister, who took office in April and quickly set off a wave of reforms, freeing journalists and opposition figures from prison, opening up the state-run economy and unblocking hundreds of websites after years of anti-government protests demanding more freedoms.

Eritrea's Afwerki days after the announcement noted "positive signals" from Ethiopia and sent the first official delegation in two decades to "gauge current developments directly and in depth" to plan future steps. 

Ethiopia used the visit to announce that the flagship Ethiopian Airlines would soon begin flights to Eritrea, and already Abiy has expressed interest in landlocked Ethiopia having access to Eritrean ports.

Previously bitter rivals over a heated border dispute, Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed has rolled out the red carpet for Eritrea's top diplomat to resolve the issue.

Posted by TRT World on Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Close cultural ties

While Ethiopia is Africa's second most populous nation and one of the world's fastest-growing economies, tiny Eritrea is one of the world's most closed-off nations, ruled by Afwerki since gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after years of rebel warfare. 

But the two countries share close cultural ties.

Eritrea has become a major source of migrants fleeing toward Europe, Israel and African nations in recent years as human rights groups criticize its harsh military conscription laws. 

Observers of the diplomatic thaw have asked whether peace with Ethiopia would lead Eritrea to loosen up and drop its long defensive stance.

Not everyone has welcomed Ethiopia's embrace of the peace deal, with some residents in the northern Tigray region bordering Eritrea holding protests.

Source: AP