The Ethiopian military government announced today a new effort to coordinate its "war campaign" against Sudan and several internal opposition groups in the northern part of the country.
The announcement follows charges last week by Ethiopia's military strongman, Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, that Sudan had committed "armed aggression" against this country and was using troops, artillery and tanks in support of the rightist Ethiopian Democractic Union and the secessionist Eritrean Liberation Front.
At that time, Mengistu hinted at some kind of mass mobilization of civilians to defend the country's unity against the two groups. It appears now that the government may be planning something similiar to last year's "peasant march" that sent tens of thousands of Ethiopians into Eritrea in an unsuccessful attempt to crush the separatist guerrilla group there.
. . . Heavy casualties were inflicted on the ill-prepared and poorly-armed peasants before the march was called off.
It is expected that in a new march the government would use elements of the 200,000-strong People's Militia, which is far better trained and armed than the peasants in last year's march. The militia has been active in fighting "counterrevolutionary outlaws" throughout the country for the past nine months. Thus it should fare better than the peasant army.
The Eritrean Liberation Front is fighting for the independence of Ethiopia's northernmost province while the Ethiopian Democratic Union seeks the overthrow of the country's Marxist military government.
The terms "war campaign" used by the military government in today's announcement is the same one employed last year for the peasant march. In addition, the government has been calling on Ethiopians to hand over "on a priority basis" their tents, an item certain to be needed in case of another march.
Thus indications are that the government is planning another march into both Eritrea and Begemdir provinces. The Democratic Union has established its stronghold in Begemdir and taken three towns there.
Meanwhile, the government confirmed reports that the Eritrean Liberation Front attacked Assab, the Red Sea port, last night and set afire two gasoline storage tanks near the Soviet-built refinery there. One person was killed, 55 were injured, and about 700,000 gallons of gasoline were lost in the blaze, according to a government statement.
The front carried out a similar attack on the refinery's installations there last spring, but did not cause as much damage then as it apparently inflicted this time. The refinery itself was not damaged in either incidents.
There was speculation here that the attack might have been in retalitation for a plan disclosed byt he government Monday to set up an "Afar administration region," reserving the Assab area for the Afar nomadic people of northeastern Ethiopia. The government said it planned to arm the Afars "in large numbers" to help defend Ethiopia's access to the sea and the crucial highway between Addis Ababa and Assab from Eritrean guerilla attacks.
As the provincial boundaries of Ethiopia are now drawn, Assab falls inside Eritrea as do the first 60 miles of highway leading from the port to the capital. The government's plan for an Afar administration region would change this. It would help the government keep Assab, and its access to the sea, in case Eritrea did become independent.
At an eight-day meeting of Afar representatives held last week in Gewane, a town halfway between Addis Ababa and Assab, the government promised the Afars regional autonomy and a large number of developement projects.
There are about 200,000 Afars spread across the lowlands of northeastern Ethiopia and into the neighboring French Territory of the Afars and Issas. One faction supports the deposed sultan, Ali Mirah, who is fighting the military government, while another, apparently larger faction is on the government's side.
The new Revolutionary Defense Committee announced today is to be headed at the national level by a 10-man body led by a member of the ruling Provisional Military Council and the minister of interior. There are to be similar committees at the local, district and regional levels and they will be responsible for maintaining the country's farm and industrial production while at the same time overseeing the war mobilization effort.
Another responsibility is to defend the country's Marxist revolution from its internal enemies.
The new committee appears to decrease the powers of both the city dwellers associations and the Provisional Office for Mass Organization Affairs, whose Marxist civilian leaders have been trying to use the city dwellers groups to take control of the government from the military.