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Ethiopia-Eritrea War Rages On

April 1, 1999

LIGAT, Eritrea (AP) _ Eritrean soldiers climbed out of their bunkers, prepared sweet tea and turned on their radios.

But the spiraling whistle of incoming Ethiopian mortars pierced the calm, and they lunged for cover. A handful of shells exploded, and then _ silence.

It was another day along the front line of the 11-month border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, one of Africa’s bloodiest conflicts.

But Eritrean infantrymen fighting at the central front, 60 miles south of the capital, Asmara, worry that the world has forgotten them.

``The worst war in the world is going on here, but the attention is on Kosovo,″ soldier Ali Hamid said.

Nearly half a million soldiers are dug in on both sides of the war, according to some estimates. The fighting flared Feb. 6 after an eight-month lull.

Both sides claim to have killed tens of thousands of enemy soldiers since the war started last May. Each side also denies it has suffered such casualties. There has been no independent confirmation of the number killed.

``Ethiopian soldiers are dying like in a holocaust,″ said Eritrean soldier Sayed Mohamedbirhan. ``I feel bad because we are neighbors, and in the future, we’ll have to work together to develop.″

Dozens of civilians have been killed, and farmers’ fields in the disputed area have been burned.

Eritrea appealed Tuesday to several humanitarian organizations to account for 1,000 missing citizens, while Ethiopia continued shelling, leaving one civilian dead and five others injured on the southwestern front near Badme, according to the government.

The two countries are fighting over disputed areas on their 620-mile border that were not clearly demarcated in 1993 when Eritrea, a country of 3.5 million, gained independence from Ethiopia, with a population of 60 million.

Ethiopia has since expelled 54,000 ethnic Eritreans, and tens of thousands of Ethiopians who lost their jobs because of the war have fled Eritrea.

But unlike in Kosovo, a legendary hotspot that risks destabilizing neighboring Balkan countries, there has been no international intervention into the dispute.

``The world doesn’t want Africa to develop or have peace,″ said Mohamedbirhan.

The war is of strategic importance in a region where Ethiopia has been a dominant player for centuries. But on the broader international stage, the Horn of Africa _ which also includes Somalia and Sudan _ barely registers.

The fighting harks back to the massive battles of the two world wars, updated with some modern weaponry.

Both countries have lavished precious foreign currency on MiG fighter jets, anti-aircraft missiles, tanks, multiple missile launchers and helicopter gunships in an effort to gain the upper hand.

But the reality on the ground is that soldiers are dug into trenches, and days of stalemate are punctuated by occasional assaults from waves of troops pouring across the front line in usually futile efforts to gain ground.

Update hourly