Ethiopian troops push deep into Eritrea

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The Independent Online

Thousands of people in southern Eritrea were yesterday fleeing from advancing Ethiopian troops, cramming into government trucks to escape as the fighting intensified around the Zenassi area.

Thousands of people in southern Eritrea were yesterday fleeing from advancing Ethiopian troops, cramming into government trucks to escape as the fighting intensified around the Zenassi area.

Officials are struggling to cope with the the exodus towards the capital, which is being monitored by humanitarian agencies flown in for the crisis. They fear a seventh of Eritrea's 3.5 million people may be displaced by the war.

The bombardment yesterday by Ethiopia of a power plant at Hirgigo, in the port of Masawa, heightened the mood in Eritrea that the Ethiopian assault is a national attack and no longer a border dispute. Eritrea says land-locked Ethiopia wants a port and a friendly client neighbour. "It is clearly a national invasion," said the presidential spokesman, Yemane Gebremeskel, adding that he was "not very optimistic" about Organisation of African Unity-sponsored peace talks beginning today in Algeria.

Yesterday Debarwa town, 40km from Asmara, housed nearly 20,000 people in an elementary school, many of whom had been on the move by foot and truck for seven days.

Freweini Woldai cried as she told of fleeing with her month-old baby and six other children: "I left my husband there."

Whole villages fled after Eritrea said on Thursday that it was withdrawing troops according to the demands of the OAU plan, which requires a pull-back to "de-escalate". Instead of halting the fighting, Ethiopian troops pushed the battle deeper into Eritrean territory, where they had already seized the southern regional capital of Barentu. Adi Khei, 40km inside the disputed southern border, was bombarded by heavy artillery on Friday, killing two people. Thousands of people used camels, donkeys, taxis and trucks to move out or fled to caves in the hillside.

Near Adi Khei, Aynealem Belay sat under a rock, unsure of where to go next. The thud of artillery could be heard. She had fled Senafe, near the border, at midnight on Wednesday, carrying nothing but her children. "I don't even remember if I shut the door behind me."

Eritrean officials now acknowledge that the Ethiopians have the initiative in the conflict and say that withdrawal was the only option.

"If you are overwhelmed by superior numbers you must withdraw or you jeopardise the whole country," said the spokesman, who admitted civilians were endangered to "preserve the army". Ethiopia, which has a population 20 times the size of Eritrea's, has said it will "annihilate" the Eritrean army, "which makes you wonder when the moment will be to stop," said a diplomat.

In Addis Ababa yesterday Ethiopians gathered to mark the anniversary of the 1991 revolution that saw the overthrow of the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.

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