Fighting Resumes as Eritrea, Ethiopia Trade Accusations

February 7, 1999
ADDIS ABABA Heavy fighting resumed Saturday along the disputed border between Ethiopia and Eritrea as the two sides traded accusations of sparking the hostilities. The Ethiopian government announced here that the Eritrean army had launched a full-scale attack on Ethiopian troops on the northwestern Badme front at dawn on Saturday. The fighting today is a full-scale attempt by Eritrea to control and destroy Ethiopia's military positions, a government statement said.

It added: Ethiopian defense forces are currently engaged in full-scale combat to defend their positions and to repel Eritrea's invading army. Eritrean radio, monitored in Addis Ababa, also said Saturday that fighting had resumed on the Badme front, but charged that Ethiopia had launched the hostilities at dawn. An Eritrean foreign ministry statement, received in Nairobi earlier Saturday, accused Ethiopia of mounting a large-scale attack against Eritrea in an area north of Badme. The regime in Addis Ababa has been consistently rejecting calls for a cessation of hostilities and threatening to launch the war any time, which it has done today, the statement said.

Numerous reports of military incidents have fanned tensions between the two Horn of Africa countries, which have been in conflict since last May over their ill-defined border. Eritrean forces have controlled Badme since the start of the conflict, and the town has become for Addis Ababa a symbol of Eritrean aggression. On Friday, Ethiopia accused its neighbor of launching an air strike against the northern border town of Adigrat to target a fuel depot.

Asmara dismissed the claim as complete fabrication and counter-charged that Ethiopia was preparing full-scale hostilities. If confirmed, the raid on Adigrat would be the first aerial bombardment reported since last June, when both sides signed a U.S.-brokered pact to halt airstrikes. Ethiopians who contacted family members in Adigrat told AFP that fighter-bombers had overflown the town, lying 25 kilometres (15 miles) from the front, and that they had heard explosions, but were unable to identify the planes.

No damage or casualties were reported. Diplomats in Addis Ababa also said planes had overflown the town. A Western diplomat speaking to AFP in Nairobi by telephone from Asmara said no aircraft were seen taking off from the airport there on Friday. All eyewitness reports agree that the Migs belonging to the Eritrean air force stayed on the ground on Friday, the diplomat said.

The impression is, throughout the western community in Asmara, that the supposed bombing of Adigrat was an operation fabricated by Addis Ababa to justify their offensive in the Badme sector, the source said. Ethiopia also charged that Eritrean artillery shelled Ethiopian positions on Tuesday on the front north of Adigrat and that on Thursday cannons fired for four hours on the Badme front.

Eritrea has also denied these charges. The area has also been barred to non-residents and tourists, as well as foreign journalists. Ethiopian airlines on Saturday announced an indefinite suspension of flights to the northwestern town of Bahir Dar and northern Mekele. It also announced that Ethiopian airlines passengers heading for Addis Ababa from Europe had been temporarily diverted to Nairobi in view of the fighting.

Meanwhile, UN special envoy for Africa Mohamed Sahnoun is in Addis Ababa on a last-ditch mediation mission. After a stop in Asmara, Sahnoun has been meeting Ethiopian authorities since Thursday, and is slated to consult with Salim Ahmed Salim, head of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) based before heading back to New York on Sunday. Diplomats said Sahnoun believed Asmara may yet agree to an OAU peace plan that has been accepted by Addis Ababa. Asmara has yet to respond to clarifications it has received on the implementation of the 11-point peace plan, which calls for Eritrean forces to withdraw from the positions they took up in May. (AFP)