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Yemane Ghebremeskel Eritrean government spokesman
"Eritrea is a victim of aggression"
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The BBC's Mark Devenport
"The sanctions will be in place for only 12 months"
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Selome Taddesse Ethiopian government spokesman
"The UN is violating its own charter"
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Thursday, 18 May, 2000, 15:17 GMT 16:17 UK
Ethiopia captures strategic town

Ethiopia has captured the strategic town of Barentu in south-western Eritrea.

Eritrean humanitarian officials say that more than 500,000 people are directly affected by the fighting.

Even if we want to hold it, we cannot afford to

Ethiopian spokesman Haile Kiros
Ethiopia says it has captured the town for strategic regions, and intends to withdraw later.

But Eritrea, fearing a further Ethiopian advance, is evacuating the town of Akordat, which lies between Barentu and the capital, Asmara.

The Ethiopian victory came shortly after the UN Security Council imposed arms sanctions on the two warring countries, in reaction to last week's renewal of hostilities along their disputed border.

Ethiopian state radio said Barentu was taken after Eritrean forces fled, following three days of fighting.

"They reorganised and tried to resist but, after heavy and fierce fighting comprised of air attacks, ground infantry and heavy artillery, the Eritreans were forced to retreat," said Ethiopian Government spokesman Haile Kiros.

He said the goal was not to hold the provincial capital of 25,000 people, but to defeat the opposing army, secure the territory around the contested border and withdraw.

"Even if we want to hold it, we cannot afford to," he said, as troops returning from the front line cheered and waved green, yellow and red Ethiopian flags.

Ethiopian soldier
Ethiopia has made significant gains
Eritrean presidential spokesman Yemane Ghebremeske admitted that Eritrean forces "were overpowered by the numbers" of Ethiopian soldiers.

Barentu is the largest town in south-western Eritrea and within the fertile Gash-Barka province. It is also one end of the main supply routes between the central and western fronts.

Civilians are now said to be leaving Akordat, which is only one hour's drive on a tarred road from Barentu.

There are also reports that Eritrean troops are retreating from Akordat, in order to defend Keren - the last town before the capital.

The Eritrean relief agency says 550,000 people have been directly affected by the Ethiopian advance.

It has appealed for international help both for them and for a further 350,000 people who it says are already affected by drought in the area.

A government statement said Eritrea had been faced with an invasion by Ethiopian troops for the last six days, and it had decided to evacuate Barentu in order better to defend itself.

UN embargo

The Ethiopian announcement of the capture came within hours of a United Nations vote to impose sanctions on both sides in an effort to prevent any further intensification of their two-year-old border war.

The Security Council voted unanimously for the move after the two countries ignored a UN deadline for an end to hostilities.

UN bans sale of :
Military vehicles
Spare parts

Eritrea has meanwhile complained that the UN resolution is unfair.

Yemani Gebremeskel told the BBC that the UN should have condemned Ethiopia for attacking Eritrea, and not criticised Eritrea, which had a legitimate right to self-defence.

Russia and France have insisted that the Security Council should review the arms embargo in a year's time.

The embargo affects the sale of weapons, ammunition, military vehicles and spare parts to both countries.

The embargo is unlikely to have much practical impact in the short term, since both sides have large stockpiles of weapons.

But diplomats argue that, by adopting the measure, the Security Council is sending out a clear political signal.

Refugees at risk

Eritrean soldier
Eritrean forces have withdrawn
The World Food Programme (WFP) says bombing near the refugee camps in the Gash Barka region scattered the inhabitants and made it too dangerous for relief workers to continue food distribution.

The UN's representative in Asmara, Simon Nhongo, said the Eritrean Government had asked the UN to help out in providing emergency supplies, such as tents, blankets, relief food and water storage facilities.

He said the UN was contacting private relief groups to ask what help they could offer.

The UN has temporarily pulled out most of its staff from the area, where it has been feeding an estimated 200,000 refugees over the past year.

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See also:

17 May 00 | Media reports
War of words in the Horn
17 May 00 | Africa
Eritrea appeals for UN help
16 May 00 | Africa
More Eritreans rushed to front
16 May 00 | Africa
Battles rage in Eritrea
16 May 00 | Africa
US calls for Horn sanctions
16 May 00 | Africa
Arms flood to Horn conflict
13 May 00 | Africa
Call to end Horn war
11 May 00 | Africa
EU presses for Horn peace deal
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