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Ethiopia's military chief of staff and air force commander were killed in a coup attempt and fighting in the capital Wednesday apparently was brought under control, official Addis Ababa radio and diplomats said.

But in the northern city of Asmera official radio said government forces had joined the coup and diplomats cited credible reports that troops had laid down their arms as Eritrean rebels moved in to take over the provincial capital.Diplomats said there was intense military activity throughout the morning in the capital but by the afternoon an eery calm settled as shops and offices closed.

"It is still very tense but the coup appears to be petering out in Addis Ababa," one diplomat said. "However, in the rest of the nation the situation is not clear. The key is what is happening in the north."

Addis Ababa radio said armed forces chief of staff Maj. Gen. Herid Negusie and air force commander Maj. Gen. Amha Desta were killed in the coup attempt, apparently prompted by low morale in the military over losses to rebel forces.

The attempt began Tuesday after President Mengistu Haile Miriam left on a trip to East Germany. His east African nation, one of the poorest in the world, has been wracked by war, drought and famine that have killed hundreds of thousands of people.

"As the attempt made by the few general officers to quench their narrow-minded thirst for power was dangerous, quick action was taken and the attempt was foiled," the official radio said, urging the military to discharge its duties "in a spirit of calm."

However, a Western diplomat reported a major battle involving tanks and artillery rocked houses in the area around the capital's old airport, located near several military installations.