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Tuesday, 13 June, 2000, 17:48 GMT 18:48 UK
Eyewitness: Horn battle horror
Ethiopian soldiers
Soldiers have been fighting in 45C temperatures
By Nita Bhalla on Ethiopia's western front

We arrived by military helicopter in the border town of Humera, situated on the banks of the Tekeze river, which separates Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Ethiopian colonel on the western front, Colonel Atikulti Berhe, told us the fighting had started at 0400 that morning, Saturday.

We were quickly packed into two four-wheel-drive cars to make the journey across the border into Eritrea and witness the aftermath of the fighting, in the place where the battle had first started.



Dying is not an addiction - we were ordered to push forward and march towards the Ethiopians stationed in the mountains

Eritrean PoW
As we drove through the town of Om Hajer, signs of fighting became quickly evident. A truck, returning from where battle was raging, carried about 25 wounded Ethiopian soldiers back across the border into Ethiopia.

In the dry landscape with temperatures of 45C (113F), the area seemed completely inhospitable. There were no signs of civilians - just groups of Ethiopian troops sitting on the roadside, preparing to reverse their withdrawal and advance deeper into Eritrea to join the counter-offensive.

The full horror of the battle soon became apparent.

Littered with bodies

The flat dusty terrain of Ma'aloba was littered with the bodies of over 100 Eritrean soldiers. Although the fighting had taken place only hours before, the stench of the rotting corpses was suffocatingly real in the searing heat.

Colonel Atikulti Berhe described what happened: "Our mission was to withdraw from the Eritrean territory, but they continued to pursue us and initiated an offensive and we retaliated," he said.

"What you see is what happened."


Eritrean prisoners of war
Eritrean prisoners spoke of the battle tactics
Most had died from gunshot wounds, others from the constant bombardment by Ethiopian artillery, which was positioned in the range of mountains surrounding the area.

Some of the bodies lay in a formation - almost 10 metres apart from one another - suggesting human wave tactics had been employed by the Eritreans. One of the Eritrean soldiers captured in the battle confirmed this.

"Dying is not an addiction. We were ordered to do what the human wave is and so we did it. We were ordered to push forward and march towards the Ethiopians stationed in the mountains," he told me.

Celebrations

As we proceeded further north, the sound of artillery and mortars could be heard. In the distance, smoke rose from the range of mountains where the fighting had moved to.


Ethiopian soldiers with Eritrean lorry
Spoils of war: An Eritrean truck
We went as far as the village of Gergeff, where hundreds of troops were stationed. We were told that it was too dangerous to proceed as the Eritreans had mined the entire area.

Despite this, there were celebrations in the village. An Eritrean military truck had just been captured and hundreds of Ethiopian soldiers piled into the back and fired their AK-47 machine guns into the air.

They danced and sang songs about defeating the Eritrean army.

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See also:

12 Jun 00 | Africa
Paying the price of war
12 Jun 00 | Africa
Ethiopia-Eritrea peace plan
09 Jun 00 | Africa
Eritrean refugees turn back
17 Apr 00 | Africa
Famine threat across the Horn
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