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
Sport
FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Sport
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
athletics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
music
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
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

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam