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Ethiopia, Eritrea Fighting Again

May 12, 2000

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) _ Ignoring international pleas to end their two-year border conflict, Ethiopia and Eritrea returned to open war on Friday with fighting reported on three fronts.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan predicted ``a very brutal war,″ and expressed frustration that peace efforts had failed.

The two sides issued contradictory statements on the details of the fighting, but both agreed that war had erupted once again along the 620-mile frontier, which contains a now-evacuated stretch of fertile land of great value in this drought-wracked region of Africa.

A resumption in the two-year war had been rumored in both capitals, Addis Ababa and Asmara, for days, even as Richard Holbrooke, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and six other Security Council representatives urged leaders of both countries not to return to a ``senseless″ war.

Speaking Friday in Munich, Germany, Holbrooke accused Ethiopia and Eritrea _ two of the world’s poorest countries _ of ``stupidity″ for whipping up relatively minor disputes out of national pride and of ``cruel disregard for the interests of the people.″

Holbrooke said there was little hope of stopping a devastating war between the two countries. Tens of thousands of people could be killed within days if full-scale conflict breaks out as it did last year, Holbrooke said.

``We hope to bring the parties back to the negotiating table, but the hope to avoid war is very small,″ he told reporters.

Holbrooke said millions of people were threatened with famine in southern Ethiopia because the government is spending its meager resources on the war.

Eritrea blamed its much larger neighbor for initiating Friday’s clashes. For its part, Ethiopia, which has accused Eritrea of starting previous military conflicts, did not say who started the latest round.

Ethiopia said its forces _ supported by tanks, artillery and aircraft _ made major gains, bombing ``strategic military targets″ inside Eritrea and capturing enemy troops and weapons. Government spokeswoman Salome Tadesse said the Eritreans suffered heavy losses.

In Eritrea, however, an adviser to Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, told The Associated Press by telephone that the claims were ``a lot of rubbish″ and denied there had been any bombing. The adviser, Yemane Gebremeskel, said the Ethiopians had been ``unable to advance an inch.″

The fighting was centered along three fronts shared by the two poverty-stricken countries _ Badme, Zalambessa, and Bure.

Badme, a barren stretch of land where the war erupted in May 1998, is 400 miles north of Addis Ababa. Ethiopia retook it in February 1999 in a battle that may have cost the lives of more than 10,000 soldiers. Zalambessa, in Eritrean hands, is a valuable fertile area about 250 miles north of Addis Ababa, and Bure is a border crossing 50 miles west of Eritrea’s Red Sea port of Assab.

The Security Council was reported to be focusing on condemning the renewal of fighting and looking for ways to pressure both sides to agree to peace talks.

Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year guerrilla war. Ethiopia’s estimated population is 61.7 million; Eritrea’s is 4 million.

The recent crisis began two years ago when Eritrea occupied Badme, in an area known as the Yirga triangle.

Isaias and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi were comrades in the fight to oust dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. Two years later, when Eritrea became a separate country, they failed to mark the border officially.

A framework agreement fashioned by the Organization of African Unity was accepted immediately by Ethiopia in December 1998. Eritrea accepted it in February 1999 after suffering serious setbacks when Ethiopia retook Badme.

But final implementation of the agreement stalled over timing of a cease-fire. Ethiopia wanted to wait until other problems were worked out, but Eritrea wanted it as a prior condition.

Diplomats in both capitals have spoken over the past week of a probable resumption of fighting. Those in Ethiopia say the Meles government is facing a serious economic crisis and believed it could not afford to wait until a peace agreement was implemented, preferring to launch one final attack to end the war.

Ethiopia is scheduled to hold elections Sunday, only the second in its turbulent history as Africa’s oldest independent nation. Discussion of the border conflict scarcely figured in the pre-electoral debates that were carried on state-run radio and television.

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