E. African Foes Clash Near Red Sea
By Karl Vick
Ethiopia claimed a major victory in the fighting on the southeastern border between the two countries, near the Red Sea, saying it killed, wounded or captured 2,000 soldiers after an Eritrean sneak attack went awry.
Eritrea denied the claim, saying it had been attacked, but a diplomat here in the Ethiopian capital said: "This time the Eritreans may have really gotten mauled. The early indications are that they may have really stepped on their poncho this time."
Eritrea, which was an Ethiopian province before gaining independence in 1993, and its larger neighbor had been close allies until this year. Economic tensions and unresolved differences over their common border, however, erupted into combat on May 5, and the two sides have clashed almost daily for the past week.
U.S. and Rwandan diplomats have been working since last month to prevent the dispute from escalating into full-scale war, but with three pitched battles in the last three days, that threshold may already have been passed.
"Oh yeah, it's a war," said Ethiopian government spokeswoman Salome Taddesse. "But the thing is, we haven't declared war."
Neither has Eritrea, as officials there have noted repeatedly.
Ethiopian officials claimed that Eritrean troops surprised their forces today near Bure. One Eritrean element attacked from the front, the officials said, while a second attacked from rear positions they had secretly assumed during the previous night. But the encircled Ethiopian forces repulsed the frontal attack, then "completely defeated" the Eritreans behind them when Ethiopian reserves outflanked them, according to a senior Ethiopian Foreign Ministry official.
Eritrea disputed that account, claiming Ethiopia had opened the new front in an attempt to capture the Red Sea port of Assab, 50 miles miles from the site of today's fight. Since Eritrea's independence, Ethiopia has been landlocked and has conducted its maritime commerce through the ports of Assab and Massawa in Eritrea, as well as through neighboring Djibouti.
Ethiopia insisted that today's battle took place on its own territory. "We have no intention, none whatsoever, of attacking Eritrea," said Salome, the Ethiopian spokeswoman.
Eritrean officials also challenged Ethiopia's claim that it "annihilated" its troops in another battle today at Erde Mattios. If confirmed, it would be Ethiopia's third victory this week. On Tuesday, its forces repelled repeated Eritrean attempts to move into Ethiopian territory south of the border town of Zalembessa. Eritrea has said both sides suffered heavy casualties in that battle.
This afternoon, Eritrean aircraft attacked Adigrat, a town crowded with people displaced from Zalembessa, 20 miles to the north. Witnesses told the Associated Press that Eritrean jets and a helicopter dropped eight bombs on an army base and a part of town that included both industry and homes. Four persons were reported killed and 300 injured.
Meanwhile, a delegation of American and Rwandan diplomats were in Addis Ababa in hopes of reviving a stalled peace process. The delegation met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who has already endorsed a plan calling for the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from the disputed territory and third-party mediation.
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