War in Africa: The biggest conflict in the world

AWAY FROM the gaze of most of the world's media, Eritrea and Ethiopia are fighting the world's biggest war. Tens of thousands have been killed, wounded and captured on each side, in fighting that uses First World War tactics, combined with modern weapons.

Last week Eritrea failed to re-take Badme, the disputed triangle of desert in the Horn of Africa which all the fighting has supposedly been about since Eritrea seized it in May last year. Ethiopia drove the Eritreans out in February, and Eritrea's first attempt to re-take it failed in late March; its second could not penetrate Ethiopian defences.

When the Eritreans took Badme, they dug trenches and bunkers and sowed Egyptian-made anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. Ethiopian attacks, by tank and artillery-supported infantry, follow extensive barrages, supported by air strikes. When Ethiopian forces broke through at Badme on 26 February, they rolled back the Eritrean line, capturing thousands, and advancing 20 miles into Eritrea; over-confident Eritrean commanders had only a single defence line, and no reserves. They learnt quickly. At Tserona, on the central front, two weeks later, Ethiopia failed to break a triple defensive line. Losses were high.

Each side is mobilising armies of more than 250,000 men they can ill afford - Eritrea has called up all its 150,000 national service conscripts and shortened their training; industrial and agricultural production is hampered by lack of labour and transport; and the government has been demanding larger "donations" from Eritreans abroad, and issuing treasury bonds and increasing taxes.

Both countries have spent hundreds of millions on arms, paying cash in advance, from China, Bulgaria, Romania and Russia which has supplied modern fighter aircraft to both sides (MiG29s to Eritrea; Sukhoi 27s to Ethiopia). Eritrea's most recent acquisition may include surface-to-air missiles, possibly from Libya, if its claims to have shot down four of Ethiopia's older MiG23s during the last week are true; it lost four or five of its six MiG29s to Ethiopian planes in earlier battles.

Eritrea appealed for food aid in April; Ethiopia issued an appeal in May. Eritrea claims more than 250,000 people have been displaced by the fighting and 52,000 more deported from Ethiopia. Ethiopia has more than 300,000 displaced, and claims a further 40,000 have been forced to leave Eritrea. The effects will be long-lasting; aid is drying up, the US has threatened to veto debt rescheduling, and foreign investors, already in short supply, will become even rarer.

But the war is spreading. Eritrea is backing Ethiopian opposition groups, particularly the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), in southern Ethiopia, along the Kenyan border. Kenya has a brigade in the area.

Eritrean arms are being channelled through Hussein Aideed, a warlord in the Somalia capital, Mogadishu. Two planeloads of arms arrived in February, one shipload reached the port of Marka south-west of Mogadishu in March, and another in May with several hundred Oromo fighters fresh from training, military advisers and land-mine experts.

Ethiopia has 3,000 troops in Somalia's north-western Gedo region, setting up a buffer zone several hundred miles long to prevent infiltration. It promptly increased backing to Hussein Aideed's opponents. The Rahenweyne Resistance Army (RRA), with Ethiopian assistance and armour, drove Hussein Aideed's forces out of Baidoa on June 6.

The RRA, which denies having Ethiopian support, now talks of advancing on Hussein Aideed's airfield at Balidogle, and the Oromo training camps at Qorioli and Marka. A few days later, Hussein Aideed, who was in Libya when the attack came, captured the port of Kismayo in southern Somalia.

In turn, Ethiopia is backing the Alliance of Eritrean National Forces, set up in March in Khartoum and active in western Eritrea. In Djibouti, now Ethiopia's only supply route, Eritrea is supporting a small armed opposition movement, aiming to disrupt the flow of military, and non-military imports.

The rainy season and an Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit are coming up next month, and both sides are manoeuvring for position. President Isaias Aferwerki of Eritrea and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia clearly want to see the other removed from office. On 24 May, Liberation Day, President Isaias Afewerki referred to the "narrow and vindictive political will", and the "evil appetite of greed and jealousy" of Ethiopia's leadership. Ethiopia has thrown doubts on President Isaias's sanity.

The war has removed the central element in US regional strategy, ruining its political vision for containing Sudanese "Islamism". Distracted by Kosovo, the US has given the Horn little attention, allowing Eritrea to drop its Israeli links and forge an alliance with Libya, even applying to join the Arab League. The French presence in Djibouti would then be the sole non-Arab element in the Red Sea, one of Israel's perennial nightmares.

A negotiated settlement will require international pressure which has yet to be applied.

Suggested Topics
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
filmDirector said film would 'never have been financed' with ethnic minority actors in key roles
News
people
Sport
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
film
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
News
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
people
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
News
i100
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
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

Argyll Scott International: Financial Accounting Manager

£300 - £400 per day: Argyll Scott International: I am currently recruiting on ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Based Sales Surveyor - OTE £40,000

£16000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Field Based Sales Surveyor is...

Ampersand Consulting LLP: UI Designer/ User Interface Designer (UI, User Flow, Design)

£6000 - £60000 per annum + Bonus and Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: UI De...

Investigo: International Finance Analyst

£270 - £300 per annum: Investigo: An exciting opportunity to join an internati...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?