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The Eritreans

A variety of Eritrean secessionist groups have used conventional means and guerrilla tactics to defy the forces of both the imperial and the revolutionary governments (see The Eritrean Movement, ch. 4). The Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), a nationalist organization committed to self-rule for Eritrea, commenced a small-scale insurgency in 1961 against imperial security forces. Throughout the 1960s, the level of hostilities accelerated steadily, leading to the 1971 imposition of martial law. Ethiopian army personnel deployed to Eritrea during this period numbered about 20,000, roughly half the force's total, but much of the burden of counterinsurgency operations fell on the paramilitary mobile police.

Ideological and ethnic differences split the ELF in 1970 and resulted in the formation of the Marxist-oriented Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). From 1972 to 1974, a civil war ensued between the two groups. Eventually, the EPLF, which advocated "revolution before unity," emerged victorious. Many ELF members, and sometimes entire units, then fled into eastern Sudan, further weakening the organization in Eritrea. After establishing its dominance, the EPLF used its increased popularity to expand its personnel strength. By 1977, when secessionists controlled the countryside and most population centers, the EPLF had approximately 15,000 troops in the field. The ELF, however, still had numerical superiority, with about 20,000 troops in its ranks. Therefore, to further discredit and isolate the ELF, the EPLF and a group of former ELF cadres who had reorganized themselves as the Eritrean Liberation Front- Revolutionary Council issued a joint statement indicating that they were "the sole representatives of the Eritrean people and the only legal spokesmen on all issues concerning the Eritrean people's struggle."

In May 1978, a 100,000-member Ethiopian force was deployed in a counteroffensive whose objective was the eradication of the Eritrean revolution. Even though the EPLF and ELF succeeded in making some preemptive attacks against government units and in defending Eritrea's southern border, the ferocity of the government counteroffensive forced the rebels to undertake a "strategic withdrawal" to their base area. As a result, the Ethiopian army reoccupied most towns and cities that had been taken by the rebels. Government troops also dealt a crippling blow to the ELF, causing many of its personnel to flee into eastern Sudan, where many of them remained.

The only government setback occurred at the EPLF-held town of Nakfa, which eventually became a symbol of Eritrean determination to resist government control. After retreating EPLF units had reached Nakfa, they built heavy fortifications, including a forty-kilometer-long defensive trench in the surrounding mountains. Despite repeated attempts, the Ethiopian army was unable to dislodge the EPLF from Nakfa. Between 1978 and 1981, the Derg unleashed five large-scale military campaigns against the EPLF, none of which resulted in a government victory.

In February 1982, the Mengistu regime embarked on its sixth counteroffensive against the EPLF. Dubbed Red Star, the campaign involved 120,000 government troops. The campaign failed to drive the EPLF from Nakfa and resulted in the deaths of more than 40,000 Ethiopian troops. Although Addis Ababa managed to consolidate its hold over the Eritrean highlands, it was unable to eliminate the EPLF, which still possessed the capacity to make hit-and-run strikes against government positions.

Once the 1982 Red Star offensive ended, the EPLF regrouped its forces to seize the military initiative. In January 1984, the EPLF captured the town of Teseney in southwestern Eritrea, and two months later the rebels overran the port of Mersa Teklay, thereby establishing an EPLF presence on the northeastern coast. During this battle, the rebels also captured a significant number of weapons, which they used to take the strategic hilltop town of Barentu in early July 1985. Once again, the rebels captured an array of military equipment, including fifteen T-54/55 tanks and dozens of trucks and artillery pieces. In May 1984, EPLF commandos attacked the Asmera air base and reportedly destroyed two Soviet Il-38 maritime reconnaissance aircraft.

When news of the EPLF's victory at Barentu reached Addis Ababa, the Mengistu regime ordered the redeployment of two divisions (about 30,000 troops) from the Ogaden to northern Ethiopia and formed a new armored division to help retake the town. The Ethiopian army then made perhaps as many as thirteen attempts to recapture the town, losing 2,000 soldiers killed or wounded in the process. After the Ethiopian air force started bombing Barentu, the EPLF guerrillas withdrew from the town on August 24, 1985, taking with them at least thirteen T-55 tanks, twelve artillery pieces, and several APCs. According to the EPLF, their units killed or captured 11,250 Ethiopian soldiers during several battles fought before the withdrawal.

Within days of reoccupying Barentu, the Ethiopian army recaptured Teseney, thereby cutting off the EPLF's western territorial flank. Additional government victories forced the rebels to fall back to their Nakfa stronghold. Over the next several weeks, the Ethiopian armed forces used tanks and other armored vehicles, cluster bombs, napalm, and fighter-bombers to support the ground attack on Nakfa. By the summer of 1986, the government offensive had ended; Nakfa, however, was still in rebel hands, and the EPLF had extended its area of control southward along the Eritrean coast.

On October 10, 1985, the Derg launched another anti-EPLF offensive, whose objective was the capture of Nakfa "within five days." The operation involved sixty aircraft and thirty helicopter gunships. For the first time, the Ethiopian air force dropped airborne units behind rebel lines in northeast Sahel awraja (subregion). When Ethiopian forces failed to capture the city, the Mengistu regime ordered two more attacks on Nakfa, each of which ended in the government's defeat.

In 1986 the EPLF relied on more traditional guerrilla tactics in its operations against the Ethiopian armed forces. On January 14, 1986, for example, a rebel commando unit, armed with rocket launchers and hand grenades, again penetrated the Asmera air base, destroying more than forty aircraft and burning the installation's ammunition and fuel depots. Apart from the impact on the Ethiopian air force, this attack caused the Soviet Union to terminate its reconnaissance flights to and from Asmera. The following May, EPLF artillery units bombarded Ethiopian positions in and around Mitsiwa, destroying fuel tanks and tankers. Regular units also overran government garrisons located about thirty kilometers south of Asmera.

Concurrent with these military operations, the EPLF continued its political offensive against the Mengistu regime. On September 23, 1986, the rebels celebrated their twenty-fifth year of resistance by calling on the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the League of Arab States (Arab League), the UN, and the Nonaligned Movement to recognize the legitimacy of their claim to nationhood. Then, on November 25, the EPLF announced that it had merged with an ELF faction that had severed ties with its parent group. The EPLF also continued efforts to reach an accommodation with another ELF faction, the Eritrean Liberation Front- Revolutionary Council, led by Ahmad Nasir.

The armed struggle in Eritrea entered 1987 with neither the EPLF nor the Ethiopian government willing to abandon the use of military force to achieve their political objectives. However, the Mengistu regime abandoned its costly strategy of launching annual major counteroffensives in Eritrea, preferring instead a policy of defensive containment while rebuilding its army, which still had not recovered from the October 1985 offensive.

The EPLF also kept its military activities to a minimum. Apart from various hit-and-run operations, one of the largest rebel engagements occurred on March 20, when the EPLF clashed with four Ethiopian army brigades in Eritrea's northern zone. In the two-day battle, the EPLF claimed government forces suffered 650 casualties.

The following year, the EPLF, which by then had approximately 30,000 full-time fighters plus an unknown number of part-time personnel, stepped up its military activities in Eritrea. On March 19, 1988, the rebels inflicted a defeat on Ethiopia's Second Revolutionary Army at the garrison town of Afabet. According to British historian and Africa specialist Basil Davidson, the Afabet victory was one of the biggest ever scored by any liberation movement anywhere since Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in 1954. Rebel spokesmen indicated that the EPLF had destroyed an Ethiopian army corps, comprising three divisions totaling 18,000 to 20,000 personnel. The rebels also had captured several thousand Ethiopian soldiers, three Soviet military advisers, and an array of equipment.

The Ethiopian government, which launched an unsuccessful counteroffensive in June 1988 against the EPLF, eventually ordered the evacuation of all foreign personnel working for humanitarian and relief organizations in Eritrea. Additionally, Addis Ababa told these organizations to relinquish all food and nonfood assistance to the government's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC). Many Western governments, including that of the United States, objected to this decision because they feared Mengistu would resort to using food as a weapon against Eritrean and Tigrayan rebels and their sympathizers.

Another development associated with the Eritrean triumph at Afabet was the EPLF's and TPLF's acknowledgment of each other's military victories, something that had not happened since a disagreement between the two groups in 1985 (see The Tigray, this ch.). In addition, the two groups issued a reconciliation statement in Damascus, Syria, and promised to coordinate future military actions to bring an end to the Mengistu regime. However, the EPLF-TPLF relationship continued to experience difficulties, largely because of disagreement over strategy and tactics, over the next several years.

Apart from further demoralizing the Ethiopian army, the Afabet victory also gave impetus to the peace process. In early July 1989, Yuri Yukalov, director of the African department at the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs, met with EPLF secretary general Issaias Afwerki. The meeting was significant because it was the first serious contact between the Soviet Union and the EPLF and because it demonstrated to Mengistu that Moscow was no longer willing to provide unlimited military assistance to support his military strategy in northern Ethiopia.

The EPLF sustained its military pressure on the Mengistu regime in 1989. On January 17, rebel units launched a preemptive attack against Ethiopian troops located northwest of the Asmera-Mitsiwa road. During the two-day battle, the EPLF claimed to have killed, wounded, or captured some 2,600 Ethiopian soldiers, in the process destroying twenty-one tanks and capturing eight others, together with a variety of small- and medium-caliber weapons. On February 19, EPLF units, operating in conjunction with the TPLF, struck and captured the town of Inda Silase in Tigray. Over the next few months, the EPLF defeated an Ethiopian contingent at Adi Kwala, a town ninety kilometers south of Asmera (March 15); repulsed an Ethiopian army attempt to cut off the EPLF fortifications around Keren (March 22-29); and killed or wounded approximately 1,000 Ethiopian soldiers at Adi Goroto (March 27-29).

In mid-1989, after Mengistu had succeeded in thwarting a coup attempt, the EPLF and the Ethiopian government agreed to enter into negotiations mediated by former United States president Jimmy Carter. After a round of preliminary negotiations, which opened on September 7, 1989, at the Carter Presidential Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, the two sides agreed to hold another round of peace talks in Nairobi, Kenya, beginning on November 20, 1989. These talks failed to produce a peace agreement. Subsequent meetings in Washington, chaired by United States assistant secretary of state for African affairs Herman Cohen, also accomplished little.

Meanwhile, government forces continued to suffer battlefield defeats. On February 10, 1990, the EPLF captured the port of Mitsiwa. The fall of this strategically important port isolated Ethiopia's Second Revolutionary Army and eventually resulted in the loss of Eritrea. Additionally, the EPLF used its small fleet of armed speed boats to sink or cripple most Ethiopian navy ships anchored in Mitsiwa harbor. Then, in August, the EPLF launched an offensive along the Dekemhare front, south of Asmera. During this operation, the rebels killed or wounded more than 11,000 government soldiers and captured two tanks, many vehicles, and more than 1,000 medium and light weapons. Although government forces enjoyed a few minor victories at the end of 1990, the EPLF remained in control of most of Eritrea.

In early 1991, the rebels started their final offensive against government forces by driving south along the Red Sea coast, a movement that by early April brought them to the gates of Aseb. At the same time, they formed an alliance with other rebel groups operating as the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and contributed at least eight brigades to the EPRDF to aid in military operations in Gonder and Gojam. By the end of April, the EPLF controlled nearly all of Eritrea, the major exceptions being Keren, Asmera, and Aseb. In late May, the EPLF assumed control of these towns without heavy fighting and without Ethiopian government reprisals against civilians. The 120,000-member Second Revolutionary Army surrendered in Asmera on May 24, the same day that Keren capitulated, the garrison at Aseb following suit the next day. Having occupied all of Eritrea, the EPLF announced its intention to repatriate all Ethiopian soldiers, security personnel, WPE members, and ordinary citizens back to Ethiopia. Shortly thereafter, EPLF leader Issaias Afwerki indicated that as far as he was concerned, Eritrea was an independent state.

Data as of 1991


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