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Ethiopia, Eritrea Wage Fierce Fight

February 9, 1999

GEZA GERELASIE, Eritrea (AP) _ War has returned in earnest to an arid stretch of borderland in the heart of the Horn of Africa.

Weekend fighting ended an eight-month stalemate in the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea over their unmarked border, a conflict that has simmered since Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia six years ago.

Late Monday, Eritrea claimed its troops in the contested Badme-Shiraro area had survived withering artillery barrages and helicopter attacks and had pushed back a three-day Ethiopian offensive.

Hand grenades and rifles littered the parched landscape after the battle, and the air reeked of gunpowder and scorched metal.

Amid the devastation and death, morale was high among Eritrean troops, who said they were determined to stop the Ethiopians from retaking the contested Yirga triangle, 95 miles southwest of the Eritrean capital, Asmara, and the largest of a half-dozen disputed areas.

However, the Ethiopian government said Monday that the Eritreans sustained heavy losses in Badme-Shiraro and further to the east.

Government spokeswoman Selome Tadesse said Ethiopian troops captured major Eritrean strongholds at Konin and Konito, areas so remote that they do not appear on most maps of Eritrea or Ethiopia.

Selome said the Ethiopian air force had played ``an instrumental role″ in fighting off the Eritreans _ a counteroffensive that would violate a moratorium on airstrikes brokered last June by President Clinton.

At the Geza Gerelasie battlefield, a red-eyed Eritrean soldier, covered with white dust from a shell that landed too close, vomited in a trench next to a dead comrade. Limping and bandaged soldiers were helped back to the trenches in scenes reminiscent of World War I.

The bodies of two Ethiopian soldiers found in an Eritrean trench could have easily been mistaken for those of Eritreans, except Ethiopian soldiers wear boots, and their enemies wear sandals.

``They were very brave and deserved to be respected,″ Eritrean Lt. Col. Ogbai Besaamalakh said of the two Ethiopians killed in battle.

A dozen Ethiopian prisoners sat on the battlefield after they had surrendered, saying the war was not theirs.

``This is a Tigrayan war,″ said one, referring to the people of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, whose guerrilla army helped oust dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991 and now control the country.

It was the Tigrayan militia that clashed with Eritrean troops in Badme last May 6, igniting what had been a simmering border dispute since Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 as part of a deal between the two guerrilla armies that had joined to defeat Mengistu.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki commanded the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, and Ethiopian Prime Minister, who is half Tigrayan and half Eritrean, headed the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

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