Ethiopia Continues Raids but Urges Peace
By Karl Vick
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said in an interview that "all-out war" could still be averted if Eritrea agrees to a peace plan allowing a third party to rule on a disputed 160-square-mile territory that each country claims as its own.
"Do you accept it or reject it?" Meles said of the plan brokered over the past month by American and Rwandan diplomats. "We said yes. No if, no but."
"Immediately the cloud of war will be removed" if Eritrea also says yes, Meles said.
In Eritrea, President Issaias Afewerki struck a pessimistic note but also left the door ajar to diplomacy. "We are committed to a peaceful solution," he told a news conference. "At the moment I don't see the light at the end of the tunnel."
In Eritrea's capital, Asmara, an Ethiopian fighter plane was shot down this morning and its pilot was captured and paraded through the city. Ethiopia acknowledged the downing but disputed two others that have been reported since Friday. An Eritrean plane also was shot down and its pilot captured. A Reuters news service correspondent reported seeing the wreckage on a hill near the provincial capital of Mekele.
Ethiopia also announced a 13-hour suspension of raids this afternoon to allow embassies to evacuate foreign nationals through the civilian side of the Asmara airfield.
A German air force Airbus A310 left first with 210 Europeans on board, followed by a U.S. Air Force Hercules carrying Americans, as well as 21 Britons and eight Canadians, to Jordan, a Reuters correspondent at Asmara's airport said.
The United States, the European Union, Russia and others strongly urged both sides to accept the peace plan, which calls for Eritrea to withdraw its forces from the disputed territory. Eritrean officials still have not publicly rejected the proposal, but that remained the only vaguely hopeful sign in a day that saw the people of both countries -- close allies until a few months ago, with personal ties at every level -- getting their blood up.
Ethiopians were outraged by the Eritrean airstrike Friday that hit an elementary school in Mekele. At least 10 children were among the 44 reported killed, all at a location Meles said was miles from any conceivable military target. Another Ethiopian official said the casualty rate was unusually high because an Eritrean plane returned to bomb the crowd that had rushed to aid people injured by a bomb dropped on the first pass.
"I am 100 percent certain," said Yemane Kidane, a senior official in the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "They are trying to terrorize the civilian population."
Photos of the dead children were posted on the gates of the Mekele hospital where survivors were treated. Yemane, who like many Ethiopians has Eritrean relatives -- including nieces and nephews who likely are serving on the front lines -- said the incident changed the popular outlook on the dispute.
"The other side identified an enemy a long time ago," he said. "We did not identify one until they bombed Mekele."
In Asmara, Eritreans once again danced in the streets at the news that an Ethiopian fighter was shot down and its pilot captured. "People are in a very ready state," said an Eritrean businessman reached by phone in Asmara. "People are saying we need to go to Addis."
Fighting also continued along the border today, where by some reports military casualties over the past week have topped 100. But the focus remained on the air war. Eritrea has only a tiny air force, which Meles said has been significantly reduced by the Asmara strikes. The purpose of Ethiopia's raids remains ambiguous: They could be either replies to earlier Eritrean military actions or an effort to control the skies before launching a ground offensive.
Asked which one Ethiopia had in mind, Meles smiled grimly and said, "I think that question is better answered by President Issaias."
Until the crisis, the two leaders were friendly. As rebels they fought together to defeat Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991, then engineered Eritrea's move from province to independent country in 1993. For the next five years, the two nations -- Africa's newest and oldest -- remained as close as their leaders. Meles' mother was born in Eritrea. Issaias's mother is from Meles' home province, Tigray.
"We often said we switched mothers," Meles said.
Relations between the countries grew strained after Eritrea introduced its own currency, then bristled when Ethiopia said it would trade only in dollars. But tensions remained largely economic until last month, when Eritrean troops marched into the remote, 160-square-mile area that each side had claimed since 1993.
"We have not turned our back on the path of peace," Meles said. "We are still hopeful that the international community will assist the Eritreans in coming to their senses."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company