US diplomats quit Eritrean capital as troops advance Ethiopia advance to striking range of Addis Ababa

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The Independent Online

America evacuated diplomatic staff from the Eritrean capital, Asmara, yesterday as Ethiopian troops moved closer to the city, capturing Maidima 62 miles to the south-west.

America evacuated diplomatic staff from the Eritrean capital, Asmara, yesterday as Ethiopian troops moved closer to the city, capturing Maidima 62 miles to the south-west.

Ethiopia has also continued air strikes deep into Eritrean territory, attacking the Sawa military training centre in the west on Friday after a strike on the Red Sea port of Massawa, 60 miles east of Asmara.

Eritrea is in shock, caught off guard by the speed and ferocity of the nine-day Ethiopian offensive. Authorities call the attack an "invasion", a charge hotly contested by Ethiopia.

An Ethiopian government spokeswoman, Selome Taddesse, said: "The capture of strategic sites inside Eritrea is solely designed to shorten the war and remove the aggressor from sovereign Ethiopian territory that it still occupies.''

Ethiopia controls the entire western front since capturing Barentu, a key military command town. With the capture of Maidima, its army is edging closer to the heavily fortified town of Zalambessa on the central front. If that was to fall, the next stop would be Asmara.

Journalists in the city say the atmosphere is tense and a siege mentality is developing. Schools and universities have been closed and men over 18 are being conscripted, say diplomatic sources.

The US State Department urged US citizens to "depart the country while commercial transport is available". Scores of expatriates from Britain, Canada and Denmark were joining US embassy staff and dependants in the evacuation.

The resurgence in fighting is taking a heavy humanitarian toll. Up to 500,000 civilians have fled their homes in the face of the advancing Ethiopian army, say Eritrean officials. Some are moving to Keren, 50 miles from Asmara, and the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, said 50,000 civilians crossed the border into Sudan in one day. The renewed fighting has been condemned by Western countries. Last week the UN Security Council imposed a 12-month arms embargo on both countries, among the poorest in the world.

Just weeks ago, the Ethiopian Foreign Minister lambasted the West for waiting to see "skeletons on television" before sending aid to combat an impending famine. His country is reckoned to spend $1m every day on the war. The Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, has said war and famine are separate issues but that argument finds little favour among horrified donor nations.

The two-year border war is popular in Ethiopia. "I feel like a hero and I'm very proud of our soldiers," said a 24-year-old restaurant cashier, Lundat Endale. "They have captured our land. The solution is to defeat them."

Ethiopia is at a critical point. It must decide whether to halt its attacks and consolidate recent victories or, in the words of one Western diplomat in Addis Ababa, "go for broke" and attempt to take Asmara.

But after the easy victories, Ethiopians are bracing themselves. "The Eritreans aren't mugs and they know guerrilla tactics," said the diplomatic source. "Everyone is expecting the counter-offensive."

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