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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?