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Tuesday, 23 May, 2000, 11:55 GMT 12:55 UK
Free rein for Eritrean opposition
Ethiopian officer and Eritrean tank
Ethiopian forces have isolated western Eritrea from the capital
By regional analyst Patrick Gilkes

The Eritrean administration in the western provinces of Barka and Gash-Setit appears to have collapsed, as the Ethiopian advance has cut the region off from the capital, Asmara.

Ethiopia claimed on Sunday to have captured Om Hajer, in south-west Eritrea. This was denied by the government in Asmara, which said Eritrean troops had defeated an Ethiopian attack, but subsequent reports suggested that government forces had abandoned Om Hajer.

However, this is the only apparent Ethiopian advance in areas west of Barentu. From Barentu, the Ethiopian army has moved north-east towards Akordat, while the main advance has continued to parallel to the border towards Mendefera.

Ethiopia appears to be leaving, deliberately, the western provinces to the opposition Alliance of Eritrean National Forces (AENF).

Like Sudan, Ethiopia appreciates the possibilities of the Alliance for weakening the government in Asmara, but is taking considerable care not to provide any overt sign of support which would be widely resented. Instead, Ethiopia and Sudan are leaving the Alliance to respond in its own way to the opportunity created by Ethiopian military successes.

Mobilisation

Alliance leaders are now trying to mobilise their support in areas once controlled by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) factions which make up most of the Alliance. In 1982, during the Eritrean struggle for independence, the ELF was driven out by the rival Eritrean People's Liberation Front - which went on to form the present Eritrean ruling party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice.

The Alliance already claims it is widely operating in rural areas, and is present in towns like Haicotta, working to organise and build up its support as fast as possible to take advantage of the vacuum.

It is also trying to prevent any exodus of its supporters into Sudan, and with some success; the majority of those who have crossed the border are government officials and their families, mostly Tigrinya speakers from highland Eritrea, or troops.

Minority groups

The refugees, however, also include considerable numbers of the Kunama and Nara agro-pastoralist peoples.

Both have movements within the Alliance, but they are concerned what will happen once the Ethiopians withdraw and the Asmara government restores control.

Both, particularly the Kunama, have suffered extensively at the hands of Tigrinya speaking highlanders who have steadily enroached on their lands, in the past and since Eritrean independence.

Before its capture by Ethiopia last week, the population of Barentu, in the centre of Kunama lands, had become almost entirely Tigrinya speaking highlanders. Without the creation of a more representative government in Asmara, the Kunama fear such pressures will increase.

See also:

22 May 00 | Africa
22 May 00 | UK
22 May 00 | Africa
18 May 00 | Africa
19 May 00 | Africa
18 May 00 | Africa
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