19 May 2007 04:19


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  • Title: [SW News] (The Guardian - United Kingdom) ETHIOPIA ELATED AT VICTORY IN BORDER WAR WITH ERITREA
  • From: []
  • Date:  [26-May-2000 12:00:00 am]

The Guardian - United Kingdom ; 26-May-2000 12:00:00 am

Ethiopia claimed victory in its two-year war with Eritrea yesterday following its capture of Zalambessa, denying Eritrean claims that it voluntarily withdrew from the key border town.

'They were thrashed, they were kicked out, they were destroyed,' an Ethiopian government spokesperson, Selome Tadesse, said.

An Eritrean government spokesman admitted that the Ethiopian flag now flew over Zalambessa, but denied that the Eritrean army had been forced from the town. He maintained instead that the Eritrean withdrawal was in response to a plea from the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to withdraw. 'We are going the extra mile to try and find peace,' he said.

The chairman of the OAU, the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has spent the last two days shuttling between both capitals to try and find a diplomatic solution to the war.

The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, welcomed the Eritrean 'withdrawal' and called on Ethiopia to respond positively. But independent military sources in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, said that after its battlefield success, Ethiopia was in no mood to accommodate the Eritrean calls for peace; they scoffed at the idea that the withdrawal had been ordered in the name of peace.

'Eritrea has withdrawn because they have suffered a humiliating defeat in the fighting of the past two weeks,' said one source.

When Eritrean forces were driven out of the town of Badme in March last year, the Eritrean government also said that it was prepared to accept an OAU peace proposal, which it had previously rejected.

Observers were stunned at the speed of the latest Ethiopian victory, which they hope will bring an end to a war that began in May 1998 when Eritrea invaded northern Ethiopia. Two years of trench warfare followed, with Ethiopia finding it difficult to dislodge the Eritreans from their well dug-in positions. But this time the Ethiopian army, operating to a well-planned campaign, broke through the trench lines and swept up through western Eritrea to encircle Zalambessa.

According to one western diplomat in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian army has evolved into 'one of the most stable and important organisations on the African continent'.

At least 50,000 people are believed to have died before this latest offensive began.

Eritrea only came into being as an independent country in 1993, when it won independence from Ethiopia after a 30-year battle against emperor Haile Selassie and later the Soviet-backed government of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

It remains to be seen what effect the loss of this war will have on the government of the country's founder, President Isaias Afwerki.

A western diplomat in Addis Ababa said yesterday that it was too early to say definitively what the chances were of Mr Afwerki staying in power, but speculated that at present 'they don't look much better than 50:50'.

'At the moment, we're looking through a cracked crystal ball, but once the dust settles on this, both [Afwerki] and his administration will have a lot of questions [from the Eritrean people] to answer.'

While the political fallout from Ethiopia's victory remains difficult to predict, the obvious humanitarian consequences, already severe, look set to worsen.

Even before this latest stage of the conflict erupted two weeks ago, some 300,000 Eritreans were in need of emergency food relief, and the latest Ethiopian offensive - which has reached deep into Eritrea - has displaced hundreds of thousands more.

A spokesperson for the UN World Food Programme said that the organisation estimated that of the 500,000 Eritreans displaced by the war, two-thirds were in need of emergency aid.

As many as 100,000 Eritreans have already fled across the border into neighbouring Sudan, and it is feared that the number will rise. Sudan is itself embroiled in a civil war and it is in no position to assist the recent influx of people from Eritrea.

The Sudanese state of Kassala said recently that it had exhausted its stocks of food and medicine, and had launched an emergency appeal for international assistance.

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