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Last Updated: Sunday, 13 November 2005, 19:22 GMT
Ethiopia town fears new conflict
By Peter Biles
BBC News, Ethiopia

A family's destroyed house in Zalambessa (file photo)
Zalambessa is slowly being rebuilt after the last war
On a rocky hillside, at Zalambessa, on Ethiopia's northern border, there are now long lines of trenches and bunkers.

They have been built during the course of this year to guard against possible attack from Eritrea.

They lie within a few hundred metres of Ethiopia's side of the border, with a clear view across into Eritrea, or what is now the 25km-wide (15 miles) UN-administered Temporary Security Zone.

The network of trenches is intricate, and it is obvious that much work has been put into establishing these defences.

Only a handful of soldiers appears to be stationed here at present, although Ethiopia is known to have recently moved thousands of extra troops closer to the border.

This weekend, truckloads of Ethiopian soldiers could be seen heading northwards from Adigrat, less than 40km (24 miles) from the border, while more than a half a dozen tanks were being transported by road in the Tigrayan regional centre, Mekele.

Bitterly-contested area

Col Eyasu Mengesha of the Ethiopian Army insists Ethiopia has no intention of striking first against Eritrea, and says the trenches on the border are for purely defensive purposes.

"It's better to be prepared than to be negligent. Also, there are signs that the Eritrean government is unpredictable, and anticipating an opportunity," said Col Mengesha.

"People are afraid because they see the soldiers and they hear that the two countries are preparing their forces on the border
Sister Kahsa Abraha
Zalambessa Catholic Church
He told me he was totally confident that the Ethiopian defences would hold back any Eritrean invasion.

Zalambessa was a bitterly-contested area during the last round of fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea five years ago.

During the two-year war, the town was occupied by Eritrean forces and, in the fighting, much of Zalambessa was destroyed.

Hardly a building was left intact along the main road.

The Ethiopian flag now flies again in Zalambessa, and a major reconstruction programme has given the town a new lease of life.

Many houses and shops have new facades, and much of the centre resembles a building site.

So much in common

However, there is certainly apprehension among the residents about the possibility of a new war with Eritrea.

"People are afraid because they see the soldiers and they hear that the two countries are preparing their forces on the border," says Sister Kahsa Abraha at the Catholic Church in Zalambessa.

Dr Welderufael Alemeyehu, a senior administration official in this northern region of Tigray saw what happened in Zalambessa during the 1998-2000 conflict and is determined that history should not be repeated.

"We are trying to rehabilitate people and alleviate our main problem which is poverty. We don't benefit in any way from war," he said.

This corner of Africa, full of ancient tradition, has been a battleground for many generations.

Ethiopia and Eritrea, two countries with so much in common and so many shared problems, desperately need to resolve their difference.

The hopes and prayers are for lasting peace.

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