Britons fly out of Eritrea

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The Independent Online
A ROYAL AIR FORCE transport aircraft evacuated 40 Britons from the worn-torn Eritrean capital Asmara late last night, as Ethiopia and Eritrea briefly suspended their ground and air war to allow hundreds of foreigners to flee the battle zone in the Horn of Africa.

The RAF C-130 transport aircraft, which flew in from Crete, also picked up about 60 Australians, Canadians and South Africans during the break in Ethiopian air attacks. US Marines gave protection to two C-130 transports which arrived to evacuate American citizens from Asmara, which had been targeted in air raids during the day.

Eritrea's President Isayas Afewerki held out little hope of peace in the escalating conflict, saying: "We are committed to a peaceful solution ... [but] at the moment I don't see light at the end of the tunnel."

In Ethiopia there were calls for revenge after nearly 50 civilians were killed in a bombing raid on Friday by Eritrea's tiny air force.

Yesterday Eritrean gunners shot down a third Ethiopian warplane on a bombing sortie over Asmara and captured its pilot. Ethiopia, in turn, captured an Eritrean pilot after he ejected from his crippled aircraft, believed to be the first lost by his side. He was captured and taken by helicopter to the nearby town of Mekele, capital of Tigray province, where nearly 50 people were killed in an air raid the day before.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said the European Union was "extremely concerned" at the increased attacks. The EU "particularly deplored" the air raids on each others' territory and urged the two sides to agree to ceasefire efforts.

Other African states implored the combatants, two of the continent's poorest nations, to stop fighting. Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary- General, called for an immediate ceasefire.The US also condemned the air attacks, saying they had sharply expanded the conflict.

Demonstrating how long the region has been racked by war, Eritrean soldiers who captured an Ethiopian pilot who bailed out of his crippled MiG 23 found that they knew him. They said his name was Bezabih Petros, whom they had captured in similar circumstances when he was serving with the air force of the military dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, in the late 1980s. The Eritreans had served with the guerrilla army that toppled Colonel Mengistu's Marxist regime in 1991. Eritrea was rewarded with its own independence two years later.

Ethiopian militiamen clapped and cheered when they reached the wreckage of the plane shot down near Mekele, which was scattered over a large area of scorched scrub. They were joined by herdsmen and children, who scavenged for pieces of mangled metal as trophies.

Officials said the captured pilot was being held in Mekele town centre, and staff at the hospital there said they had been told he might be admitted in the afternoon.

In the hospital morgue, the bodies of 47 victims of Friday's attack at dusk on a residential area were being prepared for funerals. Hospital workers with handkerchiefs tied over their mouths gagged as they bound the bodies and wrapped them in white shrouds.

At least 10 children were among the dead, and harrowing photographs of unidentified corpses were posted on the hospital gate.

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