Eritreans live in fear of further air attacks

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The Independent Online
ERITREANS were bracing themselves yesterday for more bombardments by Ethiopian warplanes after a deadline passed for hundreds of foreigners to flee to safety. Hectic diplomatic efforts were under way to prevent the border conflict from exploding into a full-scale war.

Eritreans scanned cloudless blue skies and listened for the high-pitched whoosh of the Ethiopian MiG-23 fighters that had bombed their capital's airport on Friday and Saturday. None came.

Skirmishes were reported, however, along the disputed border. Ethiopia said it had reoccupied its border town of Zala Anbessa, 65 miles south- west of Asmara, defeating in a day-long battle the Eritrean forces which captured the town last week.

Eritrean government spokesman, Isaac Yared, said the Eritrean troops retreated voluntarily and unmolested back to their side of the border. "They decided it was time to go," he said.

President Isaias Afwerki is hopeful that a summit of heads of state of the Organisation of African Unity today will yield new ideas for a negotiated settlement, his spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel, said.

The US Assistant Secretary of State, Susan Rice, left an OAU foreign ministers' meeting on Saturday in Ouagadougu, Burkina Faso, apparently for Ethiopia and Eritrea. She is promoting a peace plan for the two feuding countries that was drafted by the United States and Rwanda.

"The peace recommendations by the United States and Rwanda constitute a reasonable basis for a peaceful resolution for the conflict," she said on Saturday. The proposal includes a call to Eritrea to return to positions held prior to 6 May, when current hostilities reportedly broke out - in other words, to withdraw from what Ethiopia considers its territory.

Eritrea, wedged between northern Ethiopia and the Red Sea, however, claims it is rightfully in territory defined by boundaries drawn by Italy when it occupied Eritrea in 1885.

Mr Gebremeskel said Eritrea broadly agreed with the four-point peace plan, but he said any accord must include more specifics, including how and when the border would be demarcated and by whom.

"We need to work out the details to achieve a lasting solution," he said. "This dispute has gone on for too long already."

African leaders including presidents Yoweri Museveni, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Hassan Gouled Aptidon of Djibouti and Daniel arap Moi of Kenya called Mr Afwerki over the weekend to encourage a negotiated settlement.

Eritrean civilians were hoping to avoid war. Ethiopia's army outnumbers Eritrea's 40,000-strong force by about three to one. Eritrea's tiny air force is no match for Ethiopia's.

Mokonnen, a 27-year-old telephone operator, said he was afraid, though optimistic that a pact could be forged between the one-time allies.

"We are still free. We are still brothers, only a few people are doing this thing. Our government wants peace, and we are struggling to solve it peacefully," he said.

Ethiopian jets bombed a military-civilian airport on the outskirts of Asmara on Friday and Saturday, forcing embassies to step up their exit plans.

American, Italian, German and British planes ferried more than a thousand foreigners out of harm's way over the weekend after Ethiopia agreed temporarily to halt the bombing.

Eritrean rebels were instrumental in helping the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front overthrow the military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in July 1991, and Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

But the two countries dispute more than a half-dozen areas along their common border, which was drawn by Italy after it conquered Eritrea in 1885.