Ethiopia plunges into war with Eritrea

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A SIMMERING border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea exploded into full-scale war yesterday, with bombing raids by both sides.

Eritrean warplanes bombed the northern Ethiopian town of Mekele twice, killing dozens of people and wounding more than 100.

After the first raid, Ethiopian warplanes bombed the Eritrean capital, Asmara. Ethiopian aircraft twice bombed an Eritrean air-force base in the city. Eritrean anti-aircraft guns downed two Ethiopian aircraft, and thousands of jubilant Asmara residents rushed into the streets to celebrate, waving their young nation's red, blue and green flag.

On the first run, the bombers hit two hangars used as workshops, the tarmac, and a nearby junk yard.

No injuries were reported. Hundreds of people rushed to the airbase, attracted by the sound of the explosions and the heavy smoke in the air. Eritrean soldiers moved in to clear civilians out of the base.

Chartered aircraft were due to evacuate hundreds of foreigners, including Britons, from Asmara, where the airport remained open.

The attacks came a day after Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, warned that his country's patience with Eritrea was wearing thin because of Asmara's refusal to withdraw from territory that Ethiopia claims it occupied a month ago. However, he denied that Addis Ababa was preparing for full-scale conflict. "I am not declaring war in Eritrea," he said. "I am saying enough is enough." Mr Meles said the Ethiopian army had orders to "take all necessary measures against repeated Eritrean aggression". Eritrea vowed that it would never give in "to the language of force and intimidation".

Eritrea and Ethiopia have been engaged in a border dispute for nearly a month, though in recent days they appeared to be inching towards an internationally brokered settlement. The Ethiopian raid may have scuppered that. The dispute turned violent on 6 May with both accusing the other of invading.

The dispute centres on a rocky triangle of land that both countries lay claim to. The border has been ill-defined since Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, after a long-fought rebel war.

Eritrea's President, Issaias Afewerki, and the Ethiopian Prime Minister were, ironically, comrades in arms in the struggle to oust the 17-year Soviet-backed Mengistu regime, paving the way for Eritrea's peaceful move to independence in 1993. Now they are at each other's throats, upsetting the assertion advanced by US President Bill Clinton that a new and visionary group of ex-guerrilla leaders is transforming Africa.

Eritrea wants recognition for borders mapped by the Italians when they seized Eritrea as a colony in 1885. They do not accept the borders granted to Eritrea within pre-1993 Ethiopia.

Britain joined the United States and most Western countries yesterday in urging its nationals to leave Eritrea because of the clashes and said it was trying to arrange flights out of Asmara. "We're strongly advising British nationals to leave Eritrea," a Foreign Office spokesman said. There are some 120 British people in Eritrea.

Jane Malone, one of the Britons preparing to leave Eritrea last night, told BBC Radio that a colleague had been warned by the British Consulate that if they did not take the last fight available "we would be on our own".