Ethiopian troops reinforced by Cuban units and Soviet military advisers were reported to be occupying strong points near the Somali border yesterday with virtually no resistance.
"It would appear that the Somali withdrawal is well under way generally . . . from several areas of the Ogaden," the battleground in the Ethioplan-Somali conflict, a State Department spokesman said.
That seeming compliance with President Carter's call for a Somali troop pullout from Ethiopia to pave the way for reducing the Cuban-Soviet combat presence in Ethiopia, however, was clouded by fight-on calls from the Somali liberation front.
These calls were coupled with a demand for Carter to display the same concern for "human rights" of Somali ethnics in Ethiopia's Ogaden region as he does for dissidents "in Russian jails."
At a press conference in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, Samali-Abo Liberation Front Secretary General Challe Muhmud Ali said the warfare in the Horn of Africa "has now assumed a new character," the Somali radio reported.
Somali President Mohammed Siad Barre's order Thursday for the withdrawal of Somali's regular armed forces from Ethiopa will not apply to the liberation front's operations, Ali reiterated. And Siad Barre is reported to have endorsed a continuing liberation campaign.
The Somali regulars' withdrawal "with neither affect nor halt the struggle of the peoples who are fighting for their independence," said the liberation front leader. In addition, he said, "The front asks the U.S. president, who is always talking about the protection of human rights . . . if these human rights are relevant only to prisoners who are being tortured in Russian jails, or if they also apply to other peoples of the world," especially those "under the yoke of Aoyssinian (Ethiopian) colonialism."
American and Soviet policy, in basic conflict in the Horn of Africa, is in accord on the narrow issue that a Somali troop withdrawal from Ethiopia is a prerequisite for a peace settlement. The Carter administration is calling for early introduction of a peacekeeping force and action by the Organization of African Unity to halt the bloodshed, restore peace and ensure "the honouring of international bounderies."
If fighting goes on in the name of continued liberation warefare by Somali ethnic people inside Ethiopia, the diplomatic path could be blocked badly.
It is unclear whether the liberation front's threat to continue fighting is significant, or whether the front "will disappear in the sand," a senior U.S. official said yesterday.
The State Department said that Siad Barre "has never acknowledged control over the [front] nor is the likely to do so now." It is believed, however, that the group could do little without the support of the Somali government.
A flood of refugees from the Ogaden is beginning to cross the border into Somalia. State Department officials estimate the number of Somali ethnics in the Ogaden is "something under a million."
There are already more than 100,000 refugees fleeing ahead of the advancing troops, notably in Harar Province, Agence France-Presse reported from Mogadishu.
Carter administration officials said this figure is somewhat higher than what they have been hearing, but the refugee problem is already large, and growing. Nigeria, as chairman of an OAU mediation committee seeking negotiations between Ethiopia and Somalia, has called for a conference Thursday in Lagos, but there is doubt that Ethiopia will show up.
Ethiopia said yesterday that its troops reached the Somali border in two places, and on the way recaptured virtually every town of significance in the Ogaden desert.
A military communique said Ethiopia's army now controls every important strategic point except the major airstrip at Gode. This complex includes a major agricultural development built with U.S. assistance, and one of the longest runways in Africa. Its recapture would greatly facilitate Ethiopian air attacks on Somalia, although Ethiopia and the Soviet Union have said they have no intention of pursuing the war across the Ethiopian Somali border.
Kenya's official news agency said fleeing Somali troops burned the Ethiopian holiday resort of Malka Suff to the ground before abandoning it. The town is near the border shared by the three countries.
The Ethiopians also said they have recaptured most of the length of the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railroad, and are now astride the Somali border in the far north of the Ogaden and in the deep south, at the town of Dolo, about 300 miles from Mogadishu. There is "no indication," U.S. sources said, the Cuban-supported Ethiopian troops "intend to breach the border."