February 27, 1982

On February 16 the Ethiopian armed forces launched Operation Red Star, a military offensive aimed at isolating the Eritrean opposition and rebuilding the war-torn territory. Ethiopian troops in Eritrea number 120,000, and they are backed by MiG 23 jet fighters, MI-24 helicopter gunships, T-54 tanks and heavy artillery supplied by the USSR. The government in Addis Ababa has made few comments on the war since the original announcement of the campaign on January 25. Mohammed Siad Barre, the spokesman hereof the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF), asserts that the Ethiopians have suffered almost 11,000 killed or wounded in the three-week old war.

The EPLF claims to operate throughout the countryside while the Ethiopian authorities administer most of the major cities and towns. According to Barre, in addition to its victories on the front lines the EPLF has staged a series of dramatic bombing raids on the government-held cities, attacking the international airport at Asmara four times since late January and the Adip petrol depot in the port city of Massawa in February.

March 1, 1982

Tens of thousands of Ethiopian troops were forced to retreat along the northeastern sea coast and in the western lowlands near Sudan over the weekend, according to the EPLF. The Front also charges that a full Ethiopian division of 8,000 is trapped 15 miles inside Sudan, at the village of Aiyet. Diplomats here fear that this escalation of the Eritrea war could draw the US-backed government in Khartoum into a wider political and military confrontation at a time when it is none too stable. A spokesman for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) says that the TPLF and EPLF are coordinating operations to cut Ethiopian supply lines into Eritrea.

March 3, 1982

The EPLF today released the names of 67 civilians it says were recently arrested by the Ethiopian government in villages surrounding Asmara. They are charged with collaborating in recent EPLF mortar attacks on the airport. The EPLF claims it has inflicted “considerable damage” on jet fighters and helicopter gunships in this fifth attack on the airport in six weeks.

The EPLF reports continued heavy fighting on two fronts, with over 750 government casualties last week. The government has not released any battle accounts. Yilma Tadesse, the Ethiopian Ambassador here, referred to the current operation as the “Red Star revolutionary development campaign…a massive colossal rehabilitation effort which seeks to restore peace to the province.”

March 6, 1982

The EPLF claims an additional 250 Ethiopian soldiers have been killed or wounded in the fighting yesterday on the Afabet front. According to the Front, mounting casualties have led to government conscription of Eritrean youths. An estimated 110 Eritreans were forcibly recruited this week from Bia Berid, Debalko and Adi Berbere, three villages between Asmara and Keren. The kebele head in Adi Tekelezan village has been ordered to provide 50 fresh troops for the army, the EPLF reports. What the Ethiopian government describes alternately as a “multi-faceted development campaign” and a “small mopping-up operation” is in fact one of the largest government offensives ever launched against the Eritrean nationalist guerrillas.

March 11, 1982

All-day fighting and night bombing have continued without letup following a March 7 counteroffensive launched by the EPLF, which reports that the Ethiopian army has retreated 30 kilometers from the northeast Sahel front. Ethiopian officials in Khartoum insist they have heard nothing of any EPLF counteroffensive, or of the army destroying EPLF clinics and schools in Sahel.

A high Sudanese government official confirms EPLF claims that “a mechanized Ethiopian brigade crossed into Sudanese territory,” and that there is heavy fighting around Afabet, Nakfa and the border town of Karora. Tesfai Gebre Kidane, who oversaw Ethiopian forces in the Ogaden war, was recently promoted to full general. He is one of six senior Ethiopian army officers currently in Eritrea.

March 20, 1982

EPLF Central Committee member Amdemichael Khasai today said that two Ethiopian divisions were shifted from the Ogaden to the Eritrean port of Massawa. One division was later moved to the northern coastal town of Mersa Teklai, a staging area against the EPLF. One Middle Eastern diplomat in Khartoum reports that ten Ethiopian officers were recently executed for ordering a retreat on the Barka front.

High-level Sudanese and Western sources assert that the Ethiopian leader, Mengistu Haile-Mariam, brought the entire executive of the supreme planning council to Asmara to help coordinate the campaign. Of the leading Derg members, only Secretary-General Fikre-Selassie Wogderess and COPWE’s Legesse Asfaw remain in Addis Ababa. These sources speculate that Mengistu may face trouble from the pro-Soviet Asfaw if the Eritrean campaign is unsuccessful. Sources here claim that at least three of the Ethiopian divisions in Eritrea had no prior combat experience.

March 25, 1982

The EPLF yesterday attacked the Ethiopian armored division which had moved seven kilometers into Sudanese territory on February 20. The government had gone into the town of Aiyet to cut the EPLF’s supply route from Sudan. According to Front spokesman Mohammed Siad Barre the dawn attack raged for 12 hours before the EPLF pushed the Ethiopians back into Eritrea.

The Aiyet fighting threatens the precarious relations between Sudan and Ethiopia. Reliable sources in Gedaref, a major town to the southeast of Khartoum, say the Sudanese now have armed troops and tanks patrolling a part of the border where in 1979 they had only 13 police.

Both countries face increasing domestic unrest. The offensive against the EPLF has bogged down after five weeks. Stepped-up activity by the TPLF in Wollo province is seen as an additional threat to the Mengistu regime. Sudan has seen several uprisings in recent months, including riots in Khartoum Port Sudan and Atbara in January.

May 18, 1982

Sudan announced a general military mobilization this week along the country’s 1,200-mile eastern border with Ethiopia, placing its 50,000-man army and local police forces on increased alert. Authorities in Khartoum charge Ethiopia and Libya with attempts to destabilize the Numayri regime. “Should hostilities continue from the east and threaten the national security, Sudan would consider bringing in Egyptian forces,” said one official who asked to remain anonymous.

These officials cite recent border incidents and Libyan and Ethiopian backing for opposition groups in Sudan to substantiate their allegations. They accuse Ethiopian troops of crossing into Sudanese territory several times since the first of the year, particularly along the southern section of the border. Officials charge that a Sudanese ex-paratrooper, Yaqoub Isma‘il, has a force of between 800 and 1000 dissident soldiers massed there.

Sudanese Foreign Minister Mirghani Mubarak led an unusual diplomatic mission to Addis Ababa in late April, but it apparently was not successful in defusing the crisis. While authorities here express continued interest in a diplomatic solution, one official conceded that “absolutely anything could happen.”

How to cite this article:

Gayle Smith "Dispatches: The War in Eritrea," Middle East Report 106 (June 1982).

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