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Ethiopia Eritrea first flight: Excitement mounts as families get set to reunite

Ethiopian Airlines has resumed flights to Eritrea's capital, Asmara, after the former sworn enemies signed a peace deal to end a 20-year conflict.

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Stephanie Busari, CNN
Segun Akande (for CNN)
LAGOS, NIGERIA (CNN) — Ethiopian Airlines has resumed flights to Eritrea's capital, Asmara, after the former sworn enemies signed a peace deal to end a 20-year conflict.

The historic inaugural flight took off Wednesday morning local time, as excitement built on both sides of the border as families and friends who had not seen each other for over two decades prepared to reunite.

Some boarded the flight to visit a place they have only heard about in books and music.

One man described it as a "when John F. Kennedy died moment for my generation."

Journalist Samuel Getachew told CNN: "I have only heard about Eritrea through music and for me to step on a land I have been told are enemies of the state and see it for myself is a milestone. This is like the time when John F. Kennedy died moment for my generation."

Getachew, 41, added: "Till this day, no one has a clear idea the purpose of the war, except we know that many thousands of people have died.

"The tragedy of Eritrea has brought much distress to us all," he said.

The flight to Asmara sold out within hours of going on sale, local media reported.

"We at Ethiopian feel an immense honor and joy to resume scheduled flights to Asmara after 20 years," Ethiopian Airlines Group CEO, Tewolde GebreMariam said in a statement.

The airline shared a photo of two pilots in one of their plane's cockpit on Twitter with the caption "The clock is ticking for our historic flight to #Asmara. #Familyreunion #Ethiopia #Eritrea."

It is also hoped that the flights will boost the flow of financing, commerce and tourism opportunities into Eritrea.

"The resumption of air links will play a critical role in boosting the overall political, economic, trade and people-to-people ties between the two sisterly countries," GebreMariam added.

On Tuesday, an Ethiopian government official announced that the state-owned airline would buy a 20% stake of Eritrean Air.

The reopening of flights is one of many steps expected to strengthen ties along multiple lines between the two former adversaries.

Earlier this week, Eritrea's leader made an historic visit to Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa to reopen the country's embassy.

A week earlier, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited Eritrea and signed a pact with his Eritrean counterpart which brought a symbolic end to the long running dispute.

He said at the time: "We agreed that the airlines will start operating, ports will be accessible, people can move between the two countries and the embassies will re-open."

Both countries have been on a lengthy military standoff since border battles broke out in 1998.

An agreement was signed in Algiers in December 2000 to end the two-year conflict.

However, hostilities resumed after Ethiopia refused to accept the 2002 ruling of a UN boundary commission regarding the border town of Badme and surrounding areas.

Since ending their "state of war," the two leaders appear to have swiftly embraced their countries' new realities.

Phone lines have been quickly restored and ports and roads opened up. When phone lines opened, people from both countries took to calling random strangers -- just because they now could.

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