Global Policy Forum

Battles Rage in Eritrea

May 16, 2000

Ethiopian and Eritrean troops are exchanging heavy artillery fire, as Ethiopia tries to consolidate the advances it has made in the past four days.

The United Nations Security Council is considering a proposal by the United States to impose an arms embargo on the warring countries, which have been engaged in heavy combat along their disputed border since Friday morning.

Ethiopia says it is now battling for the control of strategic towns after making significant territorial gains, and taking several hundred prisoners of war. Our correspondent in Asmara, Alex Last, says 110,000 Ethiopian troops are believed to have crossed into territory previously held by Eritrea.

Although Eritrean military sources have said they might make a strategic withdrawal to save lives, reinforcements were seen heading towards the western front on Monday. Eritreans also fear a further Ethiopian offensive on the central front, where Ethiopia is determined to recapture the town of Zalambessa. BBC correspondent Angus Stickler was shown at least 300 soldiers who the Ethiopian army said were Eritrean prisoners of war. One of the men, Serai Tesfay, told our correspondent that the Ethiopian forces had broken through the Eritrean defences in 24 hours, after taking the Eritreans by surprise. "When they came, our heavy artillery was not here," the soldier said.

Troop movements

BBC correspondent Peter Biles saw Ethiopian trucks carrying soldiers and equipment, as well as fuel tankers, making their way along one of the tortuous roads into Eritrea. Latest reports indicate that fighting is going on around the town of Shambuko. Eritrea sought to play down the Ethiopian advance. "Although the Ethiopians are still pushing, they are running out of steam, their drive and capability is not what it was any more," presidential spokesman Yemane Gebreab told Reuters news agency.

The Ethiopian Government has admitted losing one helicopter, but denied Eritrean reports that two warplanes had been shot down. There are no reports of losses or gains by either side on the other two battle fronts: the Zalambessa region in the centre of the border, and the Bure area in the east.

UN delay

The UN Security Council, which on Friday issued a three-day ultimatum to Ethiopia and Eritrea to stop fighting or face punitive action, has delayed a decision on what action to take. Correspondents say that the arms embargo proposed by the US is unlikely to be supported by Russia.

The US proposal would also impose restrictions on senior Ethiopian Government officials travelling abroad - in recognition of the fact that arms sanctions alone would have little effect on countries which have been stockpiling weapons over the last two years. An arms embargo would prevent the two countries from continuing the war indefinitely.

Council split

The US representative, Nancy Soderberg, argued that the council must take firm action, given the severity of the casualties in the border war. "I think it sends a very strong signal initially and over time we hope it will degrade their ability to carry on this war, which has cost almost as many lives as America lost in Vietnam," she said. "The human toll in this war is extremely dramatic and I think obviously they have enough to fight for now but we hope over time that it will have an impact."

Russian arms

Russia has strongly condemned the embargo proposal, possibly because of self-interest. Much of the military equipment being used by both warring armies is believed to come from Russia and other Eastern European countries.

Neither side will accept a UN resolution which condemns both sides equally. Eritrea wants Ethiopia condemned for starting the current round of fighting, while Ethiopia has always blamed Eritrea for starting the war in the first place. On Monday, 200,000 Ethiopians marched in Addis Ababa, condemning the proposed sanctions. Demonstrators threw stones at the US and British embassies in protest at those countries' support for the embargo.

More Information on Ethiopia and Eritrea


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