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Monday, 22 May, 2000, 15:18 GMT 16:18 UK
Ethiopia's next move
Ethiopian officers on the central front
The Ethiopians' eyes are on the town of Zalambessa
By BBC News Online's Justin Pearce

Foreign embassies have been evacuating their staff from the Eritrean captial, Asmara, in anticipation of an Ethiopian advance.

But indications are that a march on Asmara is not a high priority for the Ethiopian army.

(Click here to see a map of the Ethiopian advance)

Ethiopian tactics so far appear to be consistent with Addis Ababa's stated objective - that is, to recapture what it believes to be the Ethiopian territory that is currently under Eritrean occupation - even if this has meant moving its forces far into territory which is indisputably Eritrean.

What last week appeared to be a rapid advance towards Asmara - via the towns of Akordat and Keren - has now halted.

The Ethiopians took Barentu relatively quickly. But there are reports that a bridge has been destroyed between Barentu and Akordat, preventing the Ethiopians from advancing any further.

And further along the road, the town of Keren lies at the top of an escarpment, making it an easily defensible position for the Eritrean army.

Military targets

But even if there were no obstacles to an Ethiopian advance, it is far from certain that Ethiopia would commit infantry to an attack on the capital.

Soldiers near Barentu
The advance towards Asmara has been halted
Judging by Ethiopia's strategy so far, the Ethiopian army would attack Asmara only if such an assault would futher the aim of damaging the defensive capacity of the Eritrean military.

There are air bases and military barracks in Asmara which might be possible Ethiopian targets - but if Ethiopia intends to damage military installations in Asmara, air raids would probably serve its purpose better than diverting infantry to the capital.

Ethiopia has already conducted air attacks close to Eritrea's main port, Massawa, and on the Sawa military base in the west of the country.

Central front

Reports that the Ethiopian soldiers are less than 100km from Asmara are correct - but at the point where the Ethiopians are closest to Asmara, they are heading eastwards towards the town of Mendefera, rather than northwards to the capital.

Observers say that Mendefera is likely to be the site of the next major battle in the current war, since capturing the town would open the way for an Ethiopian offensive on the central portion of the front line, around the town of Zalambessa.

The recapture of Zalambessa and the surrounding area is a priority for the Ethiopian Government, which was outraged last year when Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki declared the town sovereign Eritrean territory.

If Ethiopia can take the Zalambessa area, the obvious next step would be Bure - the area at the remote eastern end of the border

Strategy vs diplomacy

There have even been suggestions that Ethiopia would push beyond Bure to take the Red Sea port of Assab.

On the face of it, this would make strategic sense for Ethiopia - which lost its entire coastline when Eritrea became independent in 1993.

However, the annexation of a port which is indisputably Eritrean territory would have damaging diplomatic consequences for Ethiopia.

Several commentators have suggested that one of Ethiopia's real objectives in pursuing the war could be to weaken support for President Isaias.

If Mr Isaias were to be replaced by a president more sympathetic to his Ethiopian neighbours, it would enable the Ethiopians to import and export goods through Assab without the complications which bedevilled relations between Addis Ababa and Asmara for several years before the war began.

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See also:

18 May 00 | Africa
Asmara fears the worst
19 May 00 | Africa
Victory on the back of a donkey
18 May 00 | Africa
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16 May 00 | Africa
Arms flood to Horn conflict
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