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The BBC's Rageh Omaar
"The moment of truth has arrived"
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Seyoum Mesfin, Ethiopian Foreign Minister
"Ethiopia was a victim of aggression"
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The BBC's Alex Last in Asmara
"The Eritrean Government has confirmed heavy fighting on the central front"
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Tuesday, 23 May, 2000, 14:41 GMT 15:41 UK
Ethiopia says war nearly over

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has predicted the war with Eritrea could be over by Wednesday after rapid military advances in a key central border area.

He told Western diplomats that Ethiopian troops had seized vital command posts in the heavily defended Zalambessa area, about 100km (60 miles) south of the Eritrean capital, Asmara.

Mr Meles said they had virtually broken through at Zalambessa.

Eritrea's Voice of the Broad Masses radio has dismissed the claims, saying its forces were driving back the Ethiopian offensive along the entire central front.

We shall negotiate while we fight and we shall fight while we negotiate

Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi

The radio announcement said Eritrean troops "were beating off the offensive and inflicting human and material losses on the enemy".

There are no independent reports of the progress of the battle, which is being seen as a possible turning point in the border conflict.

The Ethiopians, having taken control of large areas of western Eritrea in the past 12 days, had been moving around behind Zalambessa in an effort to cut off the Eritrean troops or attack them from the rear.

Massive armies

Some observers estimate that Ethiopia has more than 100,000 troops in Zalambessa, while Eritrea has up to 80,000. It was thought to be the largest portion of the Eritrean army still intact after Ethiopia's advance.

President Bashir
Sudan's President Bashir: Appeal for peace

Western military sources in Asmara say most of Ethiopia's weaponry has been reserved for this offensive on the central front.

Mr Meles had earlier rejected appeals to halt his troops' invasion of Eritrea to allow for peace talks.

"Experience shows that, as far as Eritrea is concerned, the stick is at least as important in convincing them as any other thing," Mr Meles said, as diplomats shuttled between the two capitals trying to halt the fighting.

Sudanese appeal

The Sudanese President, Umar al-Bashir, on Monday called for an immediate end to the war, which has led to an influx of refugees into Sudan.

His appeal for a ceasefire came during talks with the Ethiopian President, Negaso Gidada.

Sudanese television said 4,000 Eritrean refugees had flooded into the eastern Kassala region of Sudan, joining 67,000 already housed in refugee camps there following previous fighting. Thousands more were expected.

Special envoys from the European Union and Organisation of African Unity (OAU) are holding talks in Eritrea on Tuesday after visiting Ethiopia on Monday in a new round of shuttle diplomacy aimed at brokering a ceasefire.

The OAU envoy, Ahmed Ouyahia, said he was "optimistic" that the fighting could be halted soon. He was speaking after talks on Monday with Mr Meles, who also met the EU envoy, Rino Serri.

Ethiopian soldiers near captured Barentu
Ethiopian soldiers near captured Barentu

The last round of proximity talks between the two sides broke down in early May, with Ethiopia accusing Eritrea of imposing unacceptable conditions.

The Ethiopian Herald on Tuesday quoted Mr Meles as saying the Eritrean army "could and should have withdrawn from Zalambessa, which is incontestably Ethiopian territory".

Thousands of Eritreans demonstrated in Asmara on Monday, calling for an end to the Ethiopian invasion.

The declared aim of Ethiopia's offensive is to destroy the Eritrean military completely in order to end the war.

Non-essential UN staff and dependents are being evacuated from Asmara, but much of the foreign community has opted to stay.

Meanwhile, Eritrea is expected to press ahead with celebrations to mark the anniversary on Wednesday of its independence from Ethiopia seven years ago.

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See also:

22 May 00 | Africa
Ethiopia's next move
18 May 00 | Africa
Asmara fears the worst
19 May 00 | Africa
Victory on the back of a donkey
18 May 00 | Africa
Will arms ban slow war?
16 May 00 | Africa
Arms flood to Horn conflict
23 May 00 | Africa
Refugee crisis spreads to Sudan
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