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Friday, 19 May, 2000, 15:28 GMT 16:28 UK
Victory on the back of a donkey
By Alex Last in Asmara

Rugged mountains and several thousand donkeys have been named as the secret weapon which Ethiopian troops used to break through Eritrean lines last week.

Ethiopia's successful and quick offensive in western Eritrea came as a shock to many Eritreans and even to Western military analysts.

Eritrea had built good trenches along the vulnerable parts of the western front, and had a large, well-armed army.

Ethiopia had more yet troops and more weapons, but had found it difficult in the past to break the Eritrean fortifications.

Eritrean military sources have now suggested that successful offensive hinged on a bold, inventive and strangely old fashioned attack.

Eritrean troops
Eritrean troops were taken by surprise
Over 100,000 Ethiopian infantrymen, assisted by thousands of donkeys and mules, attacked in the one place where Eritrea never expected.

The high mountains on the Eritrean side of the Mereb river, 40 km to the east of Shambuko would be their route to the main target which lay a few kilometres behind the heights.

The objective was the Mendefera-Shambuko road which linked Eritrea's central and western armies.

Long climb

The Eritrean village of Enda Ambas Simon is perched high in the mountains looking down on the Mereb river far below.

The river, which marks the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia, is dry at the moment. When I visited the area18 months ago, it took two and a half hours to climb from the river up to the village.

On 12 May this year, the enormous Ethiopian army came to the banks of the Mereb and set out for Enda Ambas Simon.


The Eritreans had decided it was not important to build big trenches or place a large army on the mountains

In the village were a few hundred Eritrean militia. As they looked down they could see the vast masses slowly making their way up the winding tracks towards them.

It is impossible to get tanks or artillery across the mountains. The Eritreans had decided it was not important to build big trenches or place a large army on the mountains.

Nor it seems did their intelligence realise how large a force was making their way to this relatively undefended place.

Three-day walk

It seems that the Ethiopians had gathered some distance away from the border. One captured Ethiopian soldier later said he had walked for three days before getting to the mountains.


When the Ethiopians came, our artillery was elsewhere

Eritrean PoW
The few hundred Eritrean militia tried to stem wave after wave of Ethiopian soldiers as they neared the top. With no artillery support and no reinforcements there was very little chance of stemming the advance. The Eritreans fell back, and many were captured.

One Eritrean prisoner of war was asked by a journalist how the Eritreans could have been so easily surprised.

His reply: "When the Ethiopians came, our artillery was elsewhere."

Once in control of the heights, the Ethiopians spread out as they poured down the mountains on the Eritrean side.

In front of them lay the road, and the flat plains of western Eritrea. The road was cut at the town of Mulki.

Gamble

It was a gamble because if there were no other breakthroughs, then the infantry would be left without tanks and without artillery.

However, the gamble paid off. The Ethiopians broke through at Shambuko and further south a few days later, enabling mechanised units to link with the infantry.

Once the breakthroughs were consolidated the Ethiopians rushed in even more troops. The Eritreans were outnumbered and outgunned, constantly on the move to find a way to avoid human losses but also halt the Ethiopian advance.

It proved to be to much. In the afternoon on Wednesday Ethiopian forces fought their way to the outskirts of Barentu, 60km to the north of Shambuko.

The Eritreans held their positions until the population had been evacuated. Then they too fell back.

See also:

18 May 00 | Africa
17 May 00 | Media reports
18 May 00 | Africa
19 May 00 | Africa
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