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The BBC's Alex Last in Asmara:
"Analysts have expected landlocked Ethiopia to launch an attack on the port"
 real 28k

Saturday, 3 June, 2000, 14:52 GMT 15:52 UK
Fighting erupts near Eritrean port
Ethiopian soldier with captured tank
The Ethiopians had declared the war over
Eritrean and Ethiopian forces have fought a fierce battle near the key Eritrean Red Sea port of Assab.

Eritrea accused its enemy of an all-out assault, and said it had repulsed invading forces.

But the government in Ethiopia said its forces were simply responding to a "provocative" attack from two Eritrean battalions.

After several hours, ground fighting is reported to have died down in high desert temperatures, but shelling is continuing.

The Eritreans say the frontline is only 37km (22 miles) from the port, once a key supply point for landlocked Ethiopia.

The fighting comes despite the resumption of peace talks between the two countries in Algiers, and a declaration earlier this week by Ethiopia that it considered the war over.

BBC correspondent in Asmara Alex Last says analysts have, for some time, expected Ethiopia to launch an attempt to capture the port.

On Friday Eritrea said the port's water depot had been bombed by Ethiopian warplanes, which Ethiopia denied.

At the peace talks in Algiers, a mediation team from the Organisation of African Unity met the two countries' foreign ministers separately to hear responses to a four-point framework peace agreement.

Ethiopia troops
Analysts had expected an Ethiopian attack on the port
The mediator, Ahmed Ouyahia of Algeria, urged both sides not to let "new confusion" block efforts to end the war.

The Eritreans say they withdrew to the positions they are now being forced to defend only last Sunday, in response to an express appeal from the OAU chairman, Algeria's President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika.

"This is purely a war of invasion," the foreign ministry statement said.

"It constitutes a fundamental breach of the OAU peace plan and a contemptuous act of betrayal to the OAU chairman."

Artillery fire

Eritrean presidential adviser Yemane Gebremeskel, told the BBC that the fighting on the ground had halted on Saturday afternoon, due to extreme temperatures of well above 40C.

But he said the two sides were continuing to exchange heavy artillery fire.

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopian government spokeswoman Selome Taddesse said: "We didn't start the fighting. All our military is doing is defending our positions."

The border war, which has been continuing for two years, flared up again in early May.

Ethiopian gains

There had been months of relative calm, but Ethiopia launched a series of assaults along the border after peace talks collapsed.

Its gains included the town of Zalambessa, which it regards as part of its territory, and the western town of Barentu, from which it has since withdrawn.

On Wednesday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced that, as far as Ethiopia was concerned, the war was over.

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See also:

01 Jun 00 | Media reports
Ethiopia's victory statement
01 Jun 00 | Africa
Eritreans still defiant
31 May 00 | Africa
Ethiopia says 'war is over'
31 May 00 | Africa
Ethiopia spurns UN appeal
26 May 00 | Africa
Neighbours lament Horn war
28 May 00 | Media reports
Ethiopian president hails victories
12 May 00 | Battle in the Horn
Border a geographer's nightmare
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