Eritrea set for war of attrition

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The Independent Online
ETHIOPIA AND Eritrea are fighting a full-scale war along their disputed frontier, in defiance of a peace plan and air- strike moratorium put in place by shuttle diplomacy in June.

Both sides used the past eight months to rearm and mobilise. Since Saturday they have launched one of Africa's most bitter and sophisticated international wars. Before dawn yesterday an Ethiopian plane bombed the hillside settlement of Lailai Deda, 40km inside the disputed Badme triangle. When dawn broke, five deportees - Eritreans expelled from Ethiopia - were found dead, including a baby. Their UN-donated tent had been reduced to ashes and blood-soaked clothes lay among cooking pots and household goods. Dying and burnt livestock lay near the bomb crater. Relatives and villagers wrapped the bodies in traditional white cloth and carried them to a church.

At 9am the whine of a fighter plane sent those attending the funeral into panic. A curtain of dust and smoke rose a mile away. "They can see the white tents," said Asmerum Berke, a relative of the family just killed.

It was the first time Ethiopian planes had bombed deep inside the disputed triangle, seemingly targeting a large camp of deportees ordered to leave Ethiopia over the past year. Eritrea says there are 52,000 such people, although Ethiopian officials insist about 10,000 "posing a security risk" have been expelled. According to the Ethiopian government, 40,000 Ethiopians have been "systematically expelled" from Eritrea.

Many deportees - from both sides - had been living in the country of their choice for generations, as the two countries have close historical ties. President Issaias Afewerki of Eritrea and President Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia were once fellow rebel leaders, whose guerrilla movements joined forces to defeat one of Africa's largest armies in 1991. Eritrea became, with the co-operation of President Meles, Africa's first secessionist state to win full independence, in 1993.

Relations deteriorated when Eritrea launched its own currency last year, and when disagreement on border delineation, primarily at Badme, flared into armed clashes. Although Badme was being administered by Ethiopia, with an MP and an administration, Eritrea said maps clearly showed the territory to be Eritrean and in May sent in troops to occupy the area.

Once "blood brothers", the two sides are now mobilising several hundred thousand troops, modern warplanes and weaponry and hundreds of tanks and field guns.

In Badme, Eritrea's southern front, heavy shelling from both sides continues throughout the afternoon until nightfall. Ethiopian helicopter gunships strafed the rocky outcrops, trying to dislodge Eritrean troops dug in at Geza Gera Sellaasie on the disputed border.

Four Ethiopian prisoners of war sat in a shelter not far from the front. They wore camouflage uniforms and plastic sandals. They are from far-flung corners of Ethiopia, and say the war is "not ours". Kadir Abdulkadir, 16, from Jigiga, the Somali region of Ethiopia, says he was forcibly recruited from school. Abbas Mohamed, an Oromo, says he surrendered - "the Ethiopian government is only fighting for itself".

In a trench near by, bodies of Ethiopians are decomposing in the intense heat, and the ground-shaking thump of heavy artillery makes movement impossible until night-time. Then the injured are carried down on stretchers and vehicles bring in supplies and reinforcements. New fronts have opened since Monday in Tsoronna and Zel Ambessa, two hours' drive from Asmara.

Non-essential international staff are leaving Asmara and international flights are infrequent.

Diplomats are reluctant to evacuate with the speed shown in June. "We hope this time Asmara won't be bombed," said one. But the escalating war has dashed hopes of a negotiated agreement.