Ethiopian and Eritrean Forces Exchange Heavy Fire
By Karl Vick
In a remote highland border area that looks like the American Southwest, the feuding neighbors exchanged heavy fire in a long day of fighting that put an emphatic end to two days of no significant military action. The leaders of both nations said the clash further dimmed prospects for a peaceful resolution to the conflict over who owns a 160-square-mile triangle of border land a couple of hours west of here.
"A bleak escalation of the conflict on the ground is the problem, but we are willing to discuss peace," Eritrean President Issaias Afwerki told the Reuters news agency today. He discounted a peace plan that U.S. and Rwandan diplomats helped broker last week that Ethiopia has accepted. But Issaias said he is willing to talk directly to his counterpart, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Here in the battle zone, chipper Ethiopian commanders called the day a setback for the Eritrean military, which by their account sent wave after wave of soldiers through the rocky streets of a border town called Zalambessa, only to see them retreat under Ethiopian fire. The Eritreans insisted, however, that they held the upper hand, Reuters reported.
The town has stood empty, according to Ethiopia, since Eritrea drove Ethiopian forces from it last week. Eritrea's effort to occupy the no man's land was thwarted again and again, according to Ethiopian officials, who said the Eritreans suffered heavy casualties.
"Very many Eritrean soldiers died," Turfu Kidane Mariam, the top elected official in the zone where the fighting took place, told journalists today. "They tried to move into our place three times today; three times they failed."
"They have been pushed back a fourth time," Col. Kiros Fetiwi reported a half-hour later, surveying the landscape before him from the crest of a ridge. At his back lay Adigrat, the next town down the road from the Eritrean border and a small showpiece in Ethiopia's hopeful Tigray state. Adigrat is home to a new pharmaceutical plant, a major petroleum depot and 35,000 people, all exposed on the floor of a valley, down which the sickening thud of artillery carried all morning.
In the other direction lay the panorama of canyons, buttes and plateaus where the day's fighting still raged. While Fetiwi spoke, plumes of dust rose from the nearest plateau, where six of Ethiopia's 130mm howitzers pointed north. "That is Eritrea," a private said, pointing to the line of blue mountains that formed the horizon.
Fetiwi led reporters past the howitzers and a pair of Soviet-made mobile Katyusha rocket launchers known as "Stalin's organs" because of their crude resemblance to a pipe organ. He stopped briefly in the village of Fatsi, where one Eritrean shell had leveled a stone house and another had killed a child, according to an Ethiopian soldier there.
On a ridge a few miles farther north, Zalambessa lay just visible in the distance, looking nearly as exposed as Adigrat. "We are still counting the dead," Fetiwi said when asked about Eritrean casualties; he said Ethiopian casualties were relatively light. Another officer said Eritrea lost four Soviet-made T-62 tanks and several of its soldiers were taken prisoner.
Both armies have well-stocked arsenals left over from the Cold War, when Ethiopia was generally pro-Western before becoming a Soviet client state in 1974. Many of the Soviet-supplied weapons went to Eritrea, which had been an Ethiopian province, when it was granted independence in 1993. The nations had been close allies until May 6, when Eritrean troops crossed an undefended border to claim the disputed territory.
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