Ethiopians win decisive battle in the mountains

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The Independent Online

The Ethiopian soldiers whooped with joy yesterday as they jigged around the flagpole bearing their proud colours in Zalambessa town square. The chorus rang out again and again as their raised Kalashnikovs glistened in the morning light: "It's a great day when a fighter returns home victorious."

The Ethiopian soldiers whooped with joy yesterday as they jigged around the flagpole bearing their proud colours in Zalambessa town square. The chorus rang out again and again as their raised Kalashnikovs glistened in the morning light: "It's a great day when a fighter returns home victorious."

There was no crowd to celebrate with because the townspeople had long fled, and there were no buildings to feast in because they lay in rubble. But no matter. After two years of war this quiet hamlet, dear Zalambessa, was theirs again.

The price of victory was paid among the high, craggy peaks above the town. On one rocky outcrop the twisted body of a dead soldier faced the sky, his face bloated in the midday heat. His comrades had long fled, leaving spent, gold-coloured shell cases poking out of the bone-dry soil.

Further down the narrow valley, wounded Eritreans lay in a makeshift Ethiopian field hospital. Welde Tensai, 24, grimaced in pain on a dirty blanket outside, his face and neck severely blistered and burned. This had been his first, and probably last, battle.

"We were told there would be four other tanks fighting with us but only one was there, and it wasn't working," he said. "All I remember is that once the Ethiopians came we were hit with an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade]." Another Eritrean prisoner-of-war, Mohamed Said, added: "As a soldier we knew nothing about politics. They tell us and we execute orders. But when I see it now, it is totally meaningless."

Zalambessa was probably the most heavily defended section of the disputed border, carpeted with mines and striped with miles of trenches. Ethiopia won this battle by first taking the flanking mountains, some 9,000ft. After that, there was little resistance.

Both sides make contradictory claims mired in fierce national pride and political manoeuvring. Eritrea says its troops tactically withdrew from Zalambessa. Ethiopia says their men routed them after a hard-fought confrontation.

But, after two years of slugging it out with high-tech air strikes and First World War-style trench warfare, a victor is emerging. In two weeks Ethiopia has recaptured nearly all its disputed territory. Yesterday their commanders said they had taken the town of Adikeyhe, 70 miles from the Eritrean capital, Asmara.

Peace talks sponsored by the Organisation of African Unity are to resume in Algiers tomorrow. Ethiopia, having inflicted humiliating defeats on its blood brother turned mortal enemy, will call the shots.

But with prime minister Meles Zenawi's stated policy of "negotiating by fighting and fighting while negotiating", it remains to be seen when Ethiopia will stop the shooting.

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