Eritrean disaster looms as a million flee from rapidly advancing Ethiopian forces

A humanitarian catastrophe was unfolding in the Horn of Africa yesterday, with a million Eritreans fleeing from the invading Ethiopian army.

A humanitarian catastrophe was unfolding in the Horn of Africa yesterday, with a million Eritreans fleeing from the invading Ethiopian army.

The UN refugee agency raised the alarm as Ethiopia bombed the Eritrean coast near the port of Massawa, its deepest incursion yet into its smaller northern neighbour. Up to 50,000 refugees crossed into neighbouring Sudan on Thursday and tens of thousands more are expected to file across in the coming days.

In the seven days since the two-year border war between two of the world's poorest countries reignited in earnest, Ethiopia's armed forces have made spectacular military advances inside western Eritrea.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, denies wanting to seize control of the whole of Eritrea but insists that his army will take "the shortest military route" to reverse what he regards as the "Eritrean aggression" of two years ago. The Ethiopians broke through the Eritrean defences in a matter of hours on 12 May, catching Eritrea by surprise and forcing a massive retreat.

On the western Mereb front, near the disputed area known as the Badme Triangle, miles of Eritrean trenches now lie abandoned. The arid, rocky, hilly landscape of the front lines is dominated by the long snaking trenches broken only by small bunkers and dug-outs.

This is First World War-style warfare, similar in approach to the tactics that were used by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front in its 30-year struggle for independence.

The EPLF fought the forces of the Emperor Haile Selassie until he was deposed in 1972. They then took on the dictator Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, until his regime collapsed in 1991. Eritrea became independent two years later.

In this latest round of fighting, Ethiopia is being accused of callously using "human waves" of soldiers in an effort to overrun the Eritrean trenches. Casualty figures are as high as 25,000 in the fighting of recent days, Eritrea claims.

Viewed from the air there is no obvious sign of massive casualties around the trenches. On the contrary, the indications are that the Ethiopians moved with great speed in a pincer movement, attacking the Eritreans from the west and the east and then coming around behind their lines to force the Eritrean soldiers from the trenches.

They then launched a frontal assault as well. This view is backed up by one of the hundreds of Eritrean PoWs held by Ethiopia. A 25-year-old conscript from the Eritrean capital, Asmara, said he was captured less than 12 hours after the Ethiopian offensive began. The PoW said he had seen only two or three of his comrades killed.

Driving across the dry Mereb river later, under Ethiopian military escort, we were shown one of the battlefields behind the so-called "skyline trenches". About a dozen corpses had been left to rot on the plains. More could be seen in fields beyond.

Along the sides of the dirt road, red tape has been placed to warn of the countless landmines placed by the retreating Eritreans. Just outside the destroyed Eritrean town of Shembako, where the Ethiopian army is firmly in control, a detachment of Ethiopian soldiers was seizing tanks shells from an abandoned Eritrean depot.

The shells, many with Cyrillic markings, were loaded in boxes aboard a truck. "We've already moved six or seven truckloads," said the local commander. "The shells will be taken to our new front line."

The speed of the Ethiopian invasion, recapturing disputed territory and at the same pushing deep into Eritrea proper, has astonished many analysts. "Eritrea's army is on the run," said Colonel Atakilti Berhe, one of Ethiopia's senior commanders on the border. "We came in the way they least expected and gave them no chance to reorganise and engage us again." On the road north from the Ethiopian staging post of Inda Selassie, Ethiokpian soldiers chanted, cheered and waved rifles and flags in the air as they passed through small villages on their way to the front. "We will win," shouted one young Ethiopian. In a striking contrast to the final days of the defeated Mengistu regime, the soldiers were happy to be photographed and filmed.

By Wednesday night, Eritrean forces were withdrawing from the strategically important town of Barentu, 150 miles west of Asmara. Barentu lies on the main road running westwards towards the Sudanese border. The town changed hands on a number of occasions in Eritrea's liberation war, but the latest government pull-out is a devastating setback to the leadership in Asmara.

The next important town in the area, Akordat, was evacuated by Eritrean forces the next day.

The Ethiopian Prime Minister denies that there is any link between the war and the humanitarian crisis in his country. Up to nine million people are vulnerable to the chronic food shortages facing both Ethiopia and Eritrea after three years of failed rains and poor harvests. But Mr Zenawi claims that adequate food supplies are being imported through the port of Djibouti, though he admits that, in the long term, the war is affecting Ethiopia's capacity to respond quickly to the drought.

The conflict erupted ostensibly over disputed border regions, but economic rivalry over limited resources may also be one of the root causes.

As the Ethiopian military offensive penetrates further inside Eritrea, it appears that the Ethiopian government is willing to face any amount of international condemnation. The UN Security Council has now imposed a 12-month arms embargo on both sides but it will make little material difference to two of the most militarised countries in the Horn of Africa. Both nations continue to ignore the international calls for a ceasefire, amid growing alarm about the wider regional repercussions.

Peter Biles is a BBC world affairs correspondent

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