19 May 2007 04:18


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  • Title: [SW News] (BBC) (Ethiopia/Eritrea) - Victory on the back of a donkey
  • From: []
  • Date:  [Fri, 19 May 2000 09:29:46 ]

Friday, 19 May, 2000, 15:28 GMT 16:28 UK
Victory on the back of a donkey
By Alex Last in Asmara
Rugged mountains and several thousand donkeys have been named as the secret
weapon which Ethiopian troops used to break through Eritrean lines last
Ethiopia's successful and quick offensive in western Eritrea came as a shock
to many Eritreans and even to Western military analysts.
Eritrea had built good trenches along the vulnerable parts of the western
front, and had a large, well-armed army.
Ethiopia had more yet troops and more weapons, but had found it difficult in
the past to break the Eritrean fortifications.
Eritrean military sources have now suggested that successful offensive
hinged on a bold, inventive and strangely old fashioned attack.
Over 100,000 Ethiopian infantrymen, assisted by thousands of donkeys and
mules, attacked in the one place where Eritrea never expected.
The high mountains on the Eritrean side of the Mereb river, 40 km to the
east of Shambuko would be their route to the main target which lay a few
kilometres behind the heights.
The objective was the Mendefera-Shambuko road which linked Eritrea's central
and western armies.
Long climb
The Eritrean village of Enda Ambas Simon is perched high in the mountains
looking down on the Mereb river far below.
The river, which marks the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia, is dry at
the moment. When I visited the area18 months ago, it took two and a half
hours to climb from the river up to the village.
On 12 May this year, the enormous Ethiopian army came to the banks of the
Mereb and set out for Enda Ambas Simon.
In the village were a few hundred Eritrean militia. As they looked down they
could see the vast masses slowly making their way up the winding tracks
towards them.
It is impossible to get tanks or artillery across the mountains. The
Eritreans had decided it was not important to build big trenches or place a
large army on the mountains.
Nor it seems did their intelligence realise how large a force was making
their way to this relatively undefended place.
Three-day walk
It seems that the Ethiopians had gathered some distance away from the
border. One captured Ethiopian soldier later said he had walked for three
days before getting to the mountains.
The few hundred Eritrean militia tried to stem wave after wave of Ethiopian
soldiers as they neared the top. With no artillery support and no
reinforcements there was very little chance of stemming the advance. The
Eritreans fell back, and many were captured.
One Eritrean prisoner of war was asked by a journalist how the Eritreans
could have been so easily surprised.
His reply: "When the Ethiopians came, our artillery was elsewhere."
Once in control of the heights, the Ethiopians spread out as they poured
down the mountains on the Eritrean side.
In front of them lay the road, and the flat plains of western Eritrea. The
road was cut at the town of Mulki.
It was a gamble because if there were no other breakthroughs, then the
infantry would be left without tanks and without artillery.
However, the gamble paid off. The Ethiopians broke through at Shambuko and
further south a few days later, enabling mechanised units to link with the
Once the breakthroughs were consolidated the Ethiopians rushed in even more
troops. The Eritreans were outnumbered and outgunned, constantly on the move
to find a way to avoid human losses but also halt the Ethiopian advance.
It proved to be to much. In the afternoon on Wednesday Ethiopian forces
fought their way to the outskirts of Barentu, 60km to the north of Shambuko.
The Eritreans held their positions until the population had been evacuated.
Then they too fell back.           

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