Ethiopia, Eritrea Attack Each Other
By Karl Vick
The exchange dramatically escalated recent fighting that until today had been limited to ground skirmishes on a section of barren land that each country claims as its own. Reliable casualty figures were not available, but the airstrikes raised the prospect of full-scale war between two nations that President Clinton only two months ago held up as examples of an "African renaissance."
In fact, so ardently did the U.S. administration want to avert more fighting that the State Department's assistant secretary for Africa, Susan E. Rice, spent much of the last month shuttling between the Eritrean and Ethiopian capitals. A peace plan that she helped to broker was announced Thursday and immediately embraced by Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
In the next breath, however, Meles declared that the Eritrean government had "exhausted our patience" and that Ethiopia's military had been "directed to take all necessary measures" against its neighbor. Later in the day, when Eritrea failed to embrace the proposal as well, the State Department announced it was evacuating dependents and all nonessential personnel from its embassy in Asmara, the Eritrean capital.
The first of two Ethiopian air attacks against the Asmara airport came around 2 p.m. today. Witnesses said four MiG 23s bombed and strafed the military side of the complex, although the Reuters news agency reported that a Zambian Airlines passenger jet parked on the runway was also hit.
Antiaircraft fire brought down one of the MiGs, and the streets of Asmara filled with cheers and honking at the news. News service reports that a second MiG had been downed could not be independently verified.
At about the same hour, Eritrean warplanes launched the first of three strikes on Mekele. The city of 300,000 people is the capital of the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray, which includes the 160-square-mile section of disputed territory into which Eritrea first moved troops a month ago, triggering the current crisis.
The boundary was left vague when Eritrea became Africa's newest nation in 1993. Formerly a province of Ethiopia whose 30-year war for independence was a key factor in the broader rebellion that toppled dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, Eritrea reached an amicable divorce with Ethiopia's new rulers. The two governments remained close until recent months, when frictions arose over Eritrea's introduction of its own currency.
If a sustained war were to erupt, analysts say, it would not be as lopsided as it appears. Ethiopia has 53 million people to Eritrea's 3 million, but the countries split the armaments that flowed into the region during the Cold War. And Eritrea has called up veterans of its three-decade war.
At least on the surface, however, the peace plan appeared to survive the day's bombing. Officials on both sides were careful to say that war had not been declared. And Eritrean officials who a day earlier had no comment on the proposal repeatedly said today that their only reservations involved "details and problems of implementation."
"They're big problems," said a discouraged diplomat involved in the negotiations. "We've been that route."
News services reported:
At the United Nations in New York, the Security Council today called for an immediate cease-fire, and Secretary General Kofi Annan appealed to both sides to "give diplomacy a chance."
In Mekele, pickup trucks and old cars removed the dead and barely living after an Eritrean bomber attacked the town just after 6 p.m., striking a wide stony street close to the town center and lined with tiny tin-roofed houses on one side.
At least 10 bodies lay along the road, stopped in their tracks on the way home from work and school.
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