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Thursday, July 1, 1999 Published at 11:47 GMT 12:47 UK

World: Africa

Horn fighting rages as rains approach

Both sides in the border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea are desperately trying to gain the initiative before heavy rains make further advances too difficult.

Alex Last in Eritrea: Fighting from hill to hill
BBC reporter Alex Last, who has been to the Eritrean front line near the Mereb-Setit front, says there has been intense fighting in recent days with both sides firing constant artillery barrages.

He says the two armies are fighting from hill to hill and there is evidence of fierce combat. Numerous spent cartridges and shrapnel litter the ground, and rocks are stained with dry blood.

In places, he says, the two armies are just 50 metres apart.

"The Ethiopian soldiers are very tough," said one Eritrean.

Thirty dead

The BBC's Cathy Jenkins reports from the frontline
Colonel Berhane Ogbagober told the BBC that Eritrean forces along the 50km front had pushed Ethiopian troops back by up to 5km to a final line of hills on Eritrea's side of the border at Badme.

"Badme is now within range of our short-range guns," he said.

Alex Last says that from the vantage point of Hill 1162, Ethiopian positions could be seen with the flat plains of Badme extending in the distance.

Ethiopia retook Badme in late February, forcing the Eritreans to withdraw.

Our correspondent says it was impossible to confirm claims of casualties and that he had counted 30 dead Ethiopian soldiers during a walk along the front line.

The Eritrean dead had already been removed from the battlefield, according to our correspondent.

Captured soldiers

He says that in the village of Elalo, Eritrean troops seemed relaxed and were listening to reggae music on a battered cassette with the boom of artillery fire in the background.

Laeke Mariam Delassie in Ethiopia: Dead bodies and mass graves
Another BBC reporter in the region, Laeke Mariam, has been taken by Ethiopian officials to see the scene on the other side of the border.

He says that when he arrived in Badme, about 20km behind the front line, he could hear heavy shelling in the distance.

In areas where fighting had taken place in recent days, mass graves could be seen as well as the decomposing corpses of soldiers, says Laeke Mariam.

He met two captured Eritrean soldiers - both women - who had left their children in Asmara.

They told him that they had taken part in the fighting because they believed their country was being invaded.

They said that at the time of their capture they were exhausted after fighting on another front where there had been many casualties.

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