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Ethiopia Celebrates Lands Victory

May 26, 2000

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) _ Ethiopia’s capital erupted in a singing, dancing, horn-honking celebration Thursday at word the military had broken Eritrea’s army in a border showdown that could prove the most pivotal battle of the 2-year-old Horn of Africa war.

But what Ethiopia called a rout, Eritrea called a withdrawal _ not a surrender _ and probably not yet an end to the fighting that is consuming lives and resources of two of the world’s most impoverished nations.

``Eritrea has decided, for the sake of peace, to accept the appeal ... for de-escalation,″ Eritrea announced early Thursday after a punishing 2-day Ethiopian attack on its central front. The government declared it had begun a full withdrawal from all seized territory in compliance with an African diplomatic appeal.

``Things are not what they appear on the ground,″ Eritrean presidential spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel insisted, as Eritrean troops spilled out of their strongholds at the front. ``Ethiopia is gaining territory, but losing the war.″

Ethiopians awoke Thursday to state radio playing martial music, announcing that the nation’s flag was flying once again over Zalambessa, a heavily fortified border town seized by Eritrea when the war broke out in May 1998.

``The Eritrean army was demolished,″ the Ethiopian government declared. ``Those few troops that managed to survive the thrashing are being chased and destroyed by the heroic Ethiopian forces as they run for their lives.″

The news sent Ethiopians spilling into the streets of their capital, Addis Ababa.

Students skipped school for an impromptu rally in the city center, where exultant drivers drove in circles, pounding on their car horns. Civilians sang and chanted and cheered passing army vehicles, waving the country’s tricolor.

``The war will continue until every inch of Ethiopian territory is liberated,″ declared a city administrator, Ali Abdo, addressing the crowd from atop a police cruiser.

Broadcasts carried messages of congratulations from mothers and fathers to sons at the front.

Ethiopia launched an artillery, aircraft and infantry drive into Eritrea on May 12 that it said would end only when it had destroyed Eritrea’s army and retaken all disputed territory.

Tuesday, it opened an assault to retake land in the area of the mountaintop town of Zalambessa _ saying it was the key to a quick victory in its offensive.

Hours after letting reporters visit Zalambessa, Eritrea began what it insisted was a voluntary withdrawal. But Ethiopia scoffed at the announcement, saying the retreat was a rout and claiming the withdrawal from the other areas was a sham.

Government spokesman Haile Kiros Gessesse said late Thursday that Ethiopia was pressing the fight and would keep doing so until Eritrea gave up its last stretch of disputed land.

The U.N. Security Council on Thursday welcomed Eritrea’s announcement of withdraw.

After cheering young men and boys headed to the fighting Wednesday, Eritreans gathered around cafe televisions Thursday to watch cable news footage of the jubilation in Ethiopia’s capital, then turned away glumly.

Asked about Eritrea’s withdrawal from Zalambessa, a woman in Asmara began berating Ethiopia for killing Eritrean women and children, her voice rising until she bolted away in tears, her child in tow.

Eritrea, which achieved independence from Ethiopia seven years ago, seized the disputed land along the 620-mile border in 1998 claiming sovereignty under old colonial-era boundaries.

Fighting since then has cost tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars, with Eritrea _ a country of 4 million and Ethiopia _ a country of 60 million.

Both nations have been widely accused of pursuing the war at the expense of the needs of their people, including millions threatened by a 3-year-old drought.

The Organization of African Unity said this month’s fighting alone killed thousands. The offensive uprooted an estimated half-million Eritreans, and brought the country’s economy to its knees.

Envoys from the OAU and European Union flew back and forth between capitals this week to press for a cease-fire and talks. Eritrea said its withdrawal came under an OAU framework peace plan to which both sides have agreed but neither has signed.

Before the most recent fighting, both sides were at odds over terms for implementing the accord. Efforts to stop the fighting continued late Thursday, with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika traveling from Addis Ababa to Asmara to confer with Eritrean leader Isaias Afewerki.

Update hourly