19 May 2007 04:17


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  • Title: [SW News](Washington Post) Ethiopia Makes Major Gains in African War
  • From: []
  • Date:  [Fri, 19 May 2000 10:45:40 ]

Ethiopia Makes Major Gains in African War
Troops Seize Eritrea's Command Center
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 19, 2000; Page A01
SHILALO, Eritrea, May 18-Ethiopian forces captured a strategic town well
within Eritrea in a swift overnight advance and pushed on today toward a key
provincial capital, sending more than 200,000 refugees fleeing for safety
and sealing control of one front in a rapidly broadening border war.
The taking of Barentu, after seven days of fighting, handed Ethiopia what
had been the Eritrean army's command center for the western front and set up
Ethiopian forces for a possible flanking move toward the central front east
of here. Barentu, astride a major highway 23 miles from the nearest border
point in southwestern Eritrea, also had been a supply center for Eritrean
forces in the region and was the largest trophy so far in two years of
off-and-on conflict.
Eritrea announced the town was falling under an assault Wednesday night by
artillery, warplanes and infantry. The government in Asmara, the Eritrean
capital about 100 miles east of Barentu, said today its troops have
withdrawn and 200,000 refugees, having fled the fighting, are in need of
international assistance.
Official Ethiopian broadcasts said more troops are headed from Barentu
toward Agordat, the regional capital 40 miles to the northeast. Authorities
in Asmara urged Agordat's residents to leave before the Ethiopians arrive,
which raised the specter of another wave of refugees in a country already
facing food shortages.
A senior Ethiopian commander, flush with the victory, declared the aim of
his troops is not only to reclaim territory Eritrea has occupied since the
conflict erupted, but also to "emasculate" Eritrea's military and remove it
as a threat to Ethiopia's control of land along the contested border.
The statement, made here by Col. Gabre Kidan, illustrated the punitive
undercurrent of Ethiopia's current offensive against its former province and
what appears to be a desire by leaders in Addis Ababa to act decisively in
this round of fighting against their rivals in Asmara.
Eritrea's leaders, who waged a long rebellion against Ethiopia during the
harsh Marxist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam, separated peacefully in
1993 and founded an independent country. At first they were on good terms
with the new Ethiopian leadership, which also emerged from the revolt
against Mengistu. But since then the two countries have been locked in a
hostile confrontation over contested borders and issues ranging from
personal rivalry to economic advantage.
"Our main goal is emasculating the enemy troops," Kidan said in an interview
at this crossroads town south of Barentu and about 20 miles west of
Eritrea's border with Ethiopia. "Wherever we find them, we will do that."
Asked whether that meant Ethiopian forces will try to move all the way to
Asmara, Kidan replied: "Where our Ethiopian troops are is not the main
point. What is important is how many of their troops are put out of service.
Only when that is done will we avoid any threat against Ethiopia.
"What I want to emphasize," Kidan added, "is that we are not interested in
occupying Eritrean territory."
Eritrea, meanwhile, condemned the U.N. Security Council's decision Wednesday
night to impose an international arms embargo on both warring countries,
saying the measure is unfair because Ethiopia started the current round of
fighting with an offensive against Eritrean-held border land last Friday.
"Ethiopia is the aggressor," Eritrean spokesman Yemane Ghebremeskel told
reporters. "This has never been a border war. Ethiopia has used the border
issue as a pretext to invade Eritrea."
Ethiopian officials also cast their country as the victim, noting that it
was Eritrea that began the crisis by invading the disputed border land two
years ago. Kidan, for instance, said Ethiopia has no intention of prolonging
the war but wants to prevent endless rounds of fighting by crippling
Eritrea's military.
From this Eritrean village that fell to his forces six days ago as Ethiopia
began its push, Kidan surveyed the Plain of Badame littered with spent
artillery shells and burned-out armor.
Ethiopian troops took the plain, which both countries claim, amid much
bloodshed more than a year ago. But Eritrea mounted a counteroffensive, and
its troops dug into a network of defensive trenches--now abandoned but for
bodies and belongings after last week's fighting.
"You will see this war has an end, not by destroying every soldier in
Eritrea, but by incapacitating parts of the force," Kidan said.
Ethiopian commanders said they are bracing for a counterattack at Barentu,
despite contending that taking it amounted to closing the western front.
They declined to say whether a major offensive has begun on the central
front, around Zalambessa about 100 miles to the east.
That region, which includes the home villages of several senior commanders,
has been occupied by Eritrea since June 1998. Ethiopia's attempt to take it
with a frontal assault a year ago failed, incurring extremely high losses.
Last week's surprise attack in the west was described as an attempt to draw
Eritrean troops from the central front, leaving it more vulnerable.
"It went as we planned," said Kidan of the attack. "They were not organized
when they retreated. They went wherever their feet took them."
 Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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