ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed traveled Sunday to Eritrea, once a bitter rival, for an unprecedented summit with its longtime leader, Isaias Afwerki.
State Eritrean television showed an Ethiopian Airlines plane landing at the sparse airport in the Eritrean capital of Asmara, where a brass band was drawn up to greet the prime minister for the first such visit in two decades.
The two Horn of Africa neighbors have been sworn enemies for the past 20 years since fighting a brutal ground war from 1998 to 2000 that saw at least 70,000 killed. In the intervening years, the two sides have clashed repeatedly and supported rival rebel movements.
Abiy was greeted by Isaias himself at the airport and they strode past the uniformed band and honor guard, occasionally smiling and laughing together — a marked contrast to the Eritrean president’s normally stone faced public appearances.
The two men were welcomed by women in traditional dress waving palm fronds as well as rows of officials before they retired to the airport VIP lounge and sat beneath portraits of themselves sipping juice.
Before departing from the airport, Abiy waded into the crowd of welcoming women and exchanged hugs.
As the convoy of vehicles carrying Abiy passed through downtown Asmara, crowds lined the street and cheered loudly, spilling into the road and slowing the cars to a crawl.
The change in relations between the two countries has stunned observers. For the first time in decades, Ethiopian flags adorned the streets of Asmara and other cities in preparation for Abiy’s visit, according to photos tweeted by Natalie Brown, the U.S. chief of mission in Asmara.
The rumored visit was confirmed by Abiy’s chief of staff, Fitsum Arega, on Sunday morning.
“Abiy Ahmed has left to Eritrea, Asmara today to further deepen efforts to bring about lasting peace between the people of Ethiopia & Eritrea,” he tweeted. “Our two nations share a history & bond like no other. We can now overcome two decades of mistrust and move in a new direction.”
Nearly 30 years ago, the future leaders of the two countries were comrades in the struggle against Ethiopia’s communist dictatorship. But after its overthrow and Eritrea’s declaration of independence, relations soured despite close cultural and linguistic ties.
Ethiopia’s new reformist prime minister, Abiy, broke the deadlock between the two countries on June 5 by accepting the 2000 peace agreement that ended the war, which would involve ceding territory still held by Ethiopia.
Events moved quickly after that, with Isaias accepting the overtures as a “positive” move and sending a delegation led by his foreign minister to Addis Ababa a week later. Now there has been talk of reopening long-closed air links between the two countries this year.
The summit will probably involve negotiations on how to begin the complex process of returning territories to each other and separating populations as well as restoring ties.
Under Abiy, Ethiopia appears to be embarking on a new path of reform, but Eritrea has been characterized as one of the most authoritarian states in Africa.
For much of the last 20 years, Eritrea has been focused on its conflict with Ethiopia with substantial spending on its military and indefinite mandtory military service that has sent hundreds of thousands Eritreans seeking to immigrate to Europe.
The meeting “heralds a new era of peace & cooperation,” Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Meskel tweeted Sunday.
In interviews broadcast live on Eritrean state television interviewed, people praised the visit and welcomed peace between the two countries.
“Peace is everything,” said an elderly man wearing a turban and sunglasses.