BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Somali Swahili French Great Lakes Hausa Portugeuse
BBCi CATEGORIES   TV   RADIO   COMMUNICATE   WHERE I LIVE   INDEX    SEARCH 

BBC News UK Edition
 You are in: World: Africa  
News Front Page
World
Africa
Americas
Asia-Pacific
Europe
Middle East
South Asia
-------------
From Our Own Correspondent
-------------
Letter From America
UK
England
N Ireland
Scotland
Wales
Politics
Business
Entertainment
Science/Nature
Technology
Health
Education
-------------
Talking Point
-------------
Country Profiles
In Depth
-------------
Programmes
-------------
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
CBBC News
SERVICES
-------------
LANGUAGES
EDITIONS
Friday, 26 May, 2000, 11:19 GMT 12:19 UK
Eritrea's 'tactical retreat'
Eritrean soldier in Zalambessa
Zalambessa has been laid waste
By Alex Last in Asmara

The disputed border town of Zalambessa lies in ruins. Every house has been damaged.

Many have been left with only a few walls standing - the roofs have gone, lintels stripped away, homes turned into rubble.

Still visible on the walls that are standing are decorations painted during happier times. Zalambessa is now a ghost town.


Some of the timed explosives malfunctioned and the parachuting dummies started to explode in mid-air

It was taken by Eritrean forces in 1998. Over the last two years a combination of Ethiopian artillery and bombing have emptied the town of civilians and inflicted terrible damage.

Then, a year ago, displaced people stripped the town for materials to make shelters elsewhere. The Eritrean army also took wood and masonry for trench reinforcements.

Now the ruined town has passed back to Ethiopian control.

The Eritrean army has retreated again, pulling its troops out of Zalambessa and other disputed areas on the central front.

The withdrawal began at midnight on 25 May. This is despite the continued fighting on the central front where Ethiopia had been building up its offensive.

Journalists duck shells

Before the withdrawal, the Eritreans wanted to prove that Zalambessa was under their control despite earlier Ethiopian claims.

The journalists would be used to show that the pullout had been to bring peace, not because Ethiopia was on the verge of retaking it.

Zalambessa
Journalists ran for cover as shells rained down
So, for the first time during this round of fighting the Eritreans took journalists to see.

Whisked into the town in the back of pick-ups, narrowly avoiding shells aimed at the vehicles, around 30 journalists dismounted in Zalambessa.

Unfortunately, Ethiopian aircraft had reported the movement and began directing artillery fire onto the town.

Journalists spread out - hiding in doorways, moving from one house to another, convinced in the belief that where someone else was hiding was safer.

The Eritrean soldiers looked relaxed - the situation was under control, they said.

The front was still between five and 10 km from the town and was not moving.

Exploding dummies

It was clear that apart from firing at us, the Ethiopian artillery was not as active as it had been during previous battles.

However, the fighting had been heavy on previous days.

One Eritrean soldier explained that during the battle, Ethiopia had tried to copy the Allied tactics in the Normandy landings - dropping dummies by parachutes with timed explosives, to give the impression of an airborne attack behind Eritrean lines.


What appears as another great loss, is being portrayed by the Eritreans as a clever political and military manoeuvre which had been weeks in the planning

Apparently there was some initial concern, until some of the timed explosives malfunctioned and the parachuting dummies started to explode in mid-air.

On the surface, the retreat on the central front appears to be another major military setback, following a series of setbacks in the latest round of the largest conventional war in the world.

During the last two weeks, the Ethiopian army has taken control of a huge section of western Eritrea following a successful offensive on the western front.

However, what appears as another great loss, is being portrayed by the Eritreans as a clever political and military manoeuvre which had been weeks in the planning .

One of the Ethiopian Government's main stated reasons for continuing the war is the recapture of disputed territory on the central front.

This territory around the towns of Zalambessa and Alitena (100 km south of Asmara) had been under Eritrean control since May 1998.

Eritrea's secret trenches

Over the last two weeks, Ethiopia has been finalising a massive offensive on the central front.

Eritrean soldiers
Eritrean troops pull back from the front line

Early Ethiopian gains prompted the Eritreans to put into action their back-up plan - to take away one of Ethiopia's last remaining excuses for continuing the war.

For the first time since this war began, the Eritreans built a second line of sturdy trenches on the central front, behind the disputed territories.

A departure from the contested area had, they say, been planned in advance.

Pressure on Ethiopia

By pulling out, the Eritreans hoped to remove Ethiopia's previous public objections to any peace deal would be removed.

International pressure would then build for Ethiopia to accept a cease-fire. Ethiopia, however, has vowed to break the back of the Eritrean army.

Yet the Eritreans retain forces in defensible positions. The Ethiopian army is fighting on, despite the withdrawal.

Human cost

Though initially shocked by the news of the perceived retreat, news filtered back to Asmara that the withdrawal did in fact have a purpose.

Ethiopian troops in a T-55 tank
Will the Ethiopians continue their offensive?
Since the disasaters on the western front, many Eritreans are now prepared for the long haul.

The cost of the war has been huge. Both sides claim tens of thousands of enemy casualties, but the truth of the figures will not be known for some time, if ever.

The Eritreans try to limit their losses, hence the common use of withdrawal.

It makes sense, since Eritrea has a population of only 3.5 million compared to Ethiopia's 60 million.


Border decision

Reactions

Background:

IN PICTURES

TALKING POINT
Internet links:


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Africa stories are at the foot of the page.


E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Africa stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | World | UK | England | N Ireland | Scotland | Wales |
Politics | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology |
Health | Education | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |
Programmes