Ethiopia bombs Eritrea's capital as talks start

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The Independent Online

Ethiopia's warplanes bombed a military airstrip on the outskirts of Asmara on Monday, taking its 2-week-old offensive to the Eritrean capital on the opening day of peace talks.

Ethiopia's warplanes bombed a military airstrip on the outskirts of Asmara on Monday, taking its 2-week-old offensive to the Eritrean capital on the opening day of peace talks.

It was the first attack on Eritrea's capital since June 1998, near the outset of the now 2-year-old border war between the Horn of Africa neighbors.

Four Ethiopian MiG-23s swept in over Asmara's international airport at midday, bombing and firing rockets at a military airstrip 400 yards to the west.

Two Eritrean MiG-29s screamed off a runway in immediate pursuit, as white smoke curled from the airstrip, sirens wailed and fire trucks rushed to the scene.

The attack ignited a grass fire, and sent clods of dirt flying over the road to the airport, which soldiers immediately closed to vehicles.

A Boeing 707 chartered by the International Committee to the Red Cross to deliver donated food rushed into the air minutes after the attack, fleeing before any further bombing.

Damage at airstrip appeared minimal; several Eritrean MiGs and Russian-built Hind helicopters still sat there untouched.

The attack came hours after delegations from Ethiopia and Eritrea flew to Algiers for new talks on resolving their resurgent conflict over the disputed border.

Eritrea is believed to have installed an extensive air-defense system around the capital after Ethiopian airplanes attacked there in 1998, allegedly in retaliation for a bombing then that killed civilians in northern Ethiopia.

Any air-defense system was silent Monday, however. The surprise and the ease with which Ethiopia attacked was sure to increase what would likely be a substantial impact to the country's economy, and morale.

It was not clear whether the airport would be closed to commercial air traffic as well, although few airlines were likely to brave a war that had come within a half-mile of civilian runways.

There was no immediate comment from officials of either country.

The attack overshadowed intensifying peace talks pushed by the Organization of African Unity.

Teams led by each country's foreign minister headed to the Algerian capital for indirect talks mediated by the OAU - the exact set-up and venue of talks that broke off May 4 over technicalities of implementing a peace accord.

Eight days after those talks failed, on May 12, Ethiopia launched a full-scale offensive into Eritrea to force an end to the war by military means - aiming to retake all land seized by Eritrea since 1998 and break the Eritrean army as a threat.

The two weeks since then have seen the fiercest fighting of the war, with Ethiopia forcing its adversary from the disputed border and sending hundreds of thousands of Eritrean civilians fleeing.

Eritrea agreed late last week to fully withdraw from all disputed territory. There has been no mention since then of the country's often-repeated insistence that any talks take place only during a cease-fire.

Ethiopia Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, accusing Eritrea of duplicity, adamantly rejects a cease-fire for talks.

"We shall negotiate while we fight and we shall fight while we negotiate," Meles declared before African diplomats in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

U.S. mediators, led by President Clinton's special envoy, Anthony Lake, the former national security adviser, and a European Union delegation were also sent to Algiers to take part in Monday's talks.

Fighting also was reported Monday on Eritrea's central plains near the southern city of Tsorena and near the eastern town of Bure. The two forces have been locked in combat for days in the south as Eritrea tries to block its adversary's march north into the country.