November 22, 1978
Ethiopia prepares Eritrea offensive
By DAN CONNELL
Special to the Guardian
Near Asmara, Eritrea
Last-minute preparations are underway for a second round in Ethiopia's campaign to extinguish Eritrea's 17-year war for independence.
After a 2-month lull in the fighting, Ethiopian forces are mobilizing for renewed attempts to take Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) positions along the highway linking the inland cities of Decamare and Asmara with the Red Sea port of Massawa. They also seek to take the EPLF-held city of Keren.
A massive popular mobilization is also taking place within the EPLF's liberated areas to meet the next phase of the offensive. And EPLF leaders express confidence that it, too, will be stopped.
Open civil war, meanwhile, bas broken out between two smaller factions of the divided Eritrean independence movement-the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the right-wing "ELF-PLF" in the western Eritrean lowlands, remote front the current arena of battle.
The steady escalation of the war and the mounting evidence of Soviet and Cuban participation in the planning and execution of military operations has prompted the EPLF to break a long official silence on the subject. EPLF Assistant General Secretary Issayas Afewerki spoke bitterly about the increasing Soviet and Cuban Intervention here.
"The Russians are commanding the battles," he charged. "There is nothing to hide now. Our political position is something else, but their direct participation in this war is known to everybody here."
SOVIET AND CUBAN ROLE
Last month's semiannual meeting of the EPLF Central Committee for the first time criticized the Soviet and Cuban role in Eritrea and called upon them to correct their stand and get out of the war.
EPLF leaders, however, stopped short of an outright condemnation of either the Soviet Union or Cuba while continuing to denounce U.S. imperialism for its past and present role in the conflict.
Both Cuba and the Soviet Union have denied any direct role in the Eritrean conflict. At the meeting of nonaligned foreign ministers in Belgrade last August, Cuba called for a negotiated solution to the question of Eritrea's status.
The Soviet and Cuban presence in Ethiopia and in Eritrea has built up steadily since March of last year when the ruling military Dergue ousted the last of the U.S. and Israeli advisers who bad spent 25 years arming and training the feudal army of Haile Selassie and suppressing the growing Eritrean movement for independence.
The build-up of a Soviet and Cuban presence in Eritrea began gradually at first, says the EPLF. But in September 1977, South Yemeni tank crews were leading charges against the EPLF, and by January of this year Soviet and Cuban adviser's were reported in the cities of Asmara and Massawa.
When Yemenis were captured by the EPLF in the Massawa fighting, they were quietly released to their government with strong but discreet protests by the EPLF. Months later, South Yemen pulled its forces out of Eritrea.
Similar tactics have been used to bring pressure on Cuba. While Cuban infantry troops have yet to enter the battlefield here as they did in the Ogaden war against Somali aggression, Cuban and Soviet military experts appear to have virtually taken over the direction of the fighting, say EPLF sources.
Soviet and Cuban personnel are manning the heavy Soviet artillery, planning the tactics and strategy of the campaign and taking responsibility for logistics and communications, according to lssayas Afewerki.
"The Cubans and Russians are distributed on all fronts," Issayas said. "Whenever there is any offensive from the Ethiopian side, it is sure that there are Russians and Cubans participating."
Ethiopia's dramatic advances against the ELF in July and August were due largely to the use of artillery and air superiority in the flat open lowlands, but the coming battles will be fought in rugged mountainous country against the stronger EPLF.
Deserters from Asmara say that the Ethiopian army's morale is low, and EPLF leaders say that its combat efficiency is so poor as to render it ineffective without direct assistance from more seasoned and experienced soldiers.
In sharp contrast, the moral of the EPLF fighters is extremely high, and the civilian population is almost totally mobilized behind the EPLF.
"We are not fooling ourselves that we have crushed this offensive and it's over, but the second round will not be any different from the first, and we will crush it too," said Issayas Afewerki.
At the front lines, EPLF fighters cite the tactics of withdrawing from their southern positions in early August as the key to their present strength. And they say they can hold the positions they now defend while stepping up the costs to Ethiopia by guerilla-style operations in the rear areas.
The main strength of the EPLF has been its commitment to self-reliance, which has led it to concentrate heavily on wining local popular support through programs of economic and social reform among the mainly peasant population. The EPLF's Marxist character has at the same time alienated it from lucrative sources of aid within the conservative Arab world.
A THIRD FORCE
At the same time, there is a growing third Eritrean force known as the ELF-PLF which is Western oriented in its politics. It bases its internal support on a straight forward Arab nationalist appeal to the Predominantly Moslem lowlanders of Western Eritrea. Headed by Osman Saleh Sabbe, this group is concentrated in a remote area of Western Eritrea and has managed to stay out of the recent fighting altogether while receiving a steady supply of aid from Saudia Arabia, the Arab Emirates and Iran who fear the emergence of the leftist EPLF as the dominant force in Eritrea.
Both the ELF and the EPLF oppose the third force, and last week open civil war broke out between it and the ELF over control of supply lines into the small area in which both are now concentrated due to the recent Ethiopian advances.
Skirmishing between them has been reported for nearly two months but on Oct. 28, the ELF launched major attacks on two FLF-PLF camps after ELF-PLF forces reportedly ambushed an ELF patrol.
Meanwhile, Sudan's government has stepped up pressure on all three organizations to bury their differences and unite and diplomatic sources say that President Gen. Jaafar Muhammed al- Nimeiry this week demanded a meeting of the three in Khartoum under the threat of cutting off support if they refused.
With Ethiopia resupplying its troops for the next wave of attacks, a civil war between the smaller factions could well leave the Addis Ababa government and the EPLF to fight out on their own.
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GUARDIAN Nov 29, 1978
Osman Sabbe’s third force attacks ELF
Eritrean factions spur civil war
By DAN CONNELL
Special to the Guardian
With Ethiopian forces on the verge of launching a major second round assault against the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), infighting among two smaller guerrilla factions has reached the level of a full-scale civil war.
A ceasefire was declared last week between the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the Eritrean Liberation Front-Popular Liberation Forces (ELF-PLF) after two weeks of heavy fighting. But there is no sign of letup in the life and death political struggle between them, and neither faction is expected to play a role in the imminent fighting between the EPLF and Ethiopia.
The immediate cause of the battle have been territorial-the control lines into their overlapping base the Western Eritrea--the root cause is the groups' opposition to the EPLF's growing domination over the Eritrean independence movement.
Superficially, these groupings cover a political range from "left" of the EPLF to the extreme right. But there is an increasing trend toward a consolidation under the umbrella of the avowedly right-wing Arab Nationalist ELF-PLF. The immediate goal seems to be eliminating the centrist ELF to sharply polarize the movement into a simple contradiction between EPLF and ELF-PLF.
Sources close to the ELF-PLF say that the recently formed third Eritrean armed force has the support of conservative Arab regimes including, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates, as well as Iran. It is also allied with a dissident group within the ELF known as the "Falloul" (anarchists).
The ELF-PLF strategy is to bring about internal collapse of the ELF, now demoralized from recent losses to Ethiopia, while the EPLF is weakened by the strain of fighting alone against the government in the next phase of the offensive, according to these sources.
In this scenario, the ELF-PLF can then emerge as the sole representative of the predominantly Muslim Western Eritrean lowlands to demand from the EPLF, Lebanon-style division of Eritrea along religious and tribal lines as the price for an alliance against Ethiopia, postponing a direct confrontation with the EPLF until a later time when Ethiopia has returned to the defensive and foreign support can be consolidated behind the ELF-PLF.
The ELF-PLF is headed by Osman Saleh Sabbe, a shrewd politician who was an original leader of the ELF in the 1960s and later chief of the EPLF foreign mission after the second front broke away from the ELF in 1970.
During this period he formed strong contacts in the Arab world. When he was jettisoned by the left-wing core of the EPLF Field Command in 1976, along with the EPLF's right wing, he rapidly set about establishing a third front with funds from his oil rich foreign allies. His membership was made up of dissidents from the other two fronts, along with refugees recruited from camps in neighboring Sudan.
AIMING AT UNITED FRONT
At this time the EPLF and the ELF were involved in irregular negotiations to form a united front after three years of civil war which had ended in late 1974. ELF leaders sought to take advantage of the new force by giving it access to their liberated areas in Western Eritrea and then demanding its inclusion in unity talks with an eye toward gaining an ally against the rapidly growing EPLF.
When EPLF leaders refused to recognize the Sabbe force, the ELF declared its intention of effecting a preliminary merger with it prior to unity with the EPLF. But the plan backfired within the ELF ranks and generated a grassroots mutiny among guerillas who foresaw the possibility of war with the EPLF in the event of such a realignment.
The summer of 1977 saw wholesale defections of the ELF's left wing with an estimated 1500 going over to the EPLF and another 3000 fleeing to Sudan to organize as the Falloul. Rather than fielding yet a fourth army in Eritrea, the Falloul sought to strengthen it support within the ELF while outwardly criticizing both the EPLF and the ELF and biding its time.
When in October 1977 the ELF leadership reversed itself to agree to unity with the EPLF without the ELF-PLF, the lines of political demarcation began to sharpen, and the ELF experienced further defections of its right wing to the Sabbe group.
Gradually, the labyrinthian politics of the Eritrean movement began to resolve into two
camps with the Falloul gravitating toward the ELF-PLF, and the FLPF and the ELF making halting progress toward a loose but formal alliance that finally came to pass in April 1978.
However, the opening of military campaign in June intervened to stir up old rivalries between the EPLF and the ELF as the two failed to coordinate their defenses and the ELF lost all the towns and cities under its control.
ELF-PLF elements within the ELF attempted a series of coups d’états and mutinies which were put down by that front, but the resultant disarray forced the bulk of the ELF’s fighting forces to withdraw to bases in the western lowlands to reorganize.
Meanwhile, the Falloul became increasingly vocal in its critiques of the two major fronts, keying on their field losses (which for the EPLF amounted to voluntary withdrawals from several positions rather than battlefield defeats but were characterized as unnecessary capitulation) and their refusal to take an anti-Soviet and anti-Cuban stand.
With the EPLF preparing for the imminent showdown with Ethiopia, it has tended to ignore the intrigues and maneuverings of the rightist forces, hut in late October, the ELF struck out at ELF-PLF bases near the city of Agrodat. According to several independent sources, they managed to overrun at least half of the ELF-PLF's base area before accepting a ceasefire.
Whether the EPLF and the ELF can now resume the unsteady process of establishing unity, and whether the various other dissident groups will manage to cement their alliance remains to be seen. But what is clear is that the ingredients exist for an ultimate confrontation between the two polar Eritrean forces and there is less and less room for either a simple solution to their differences or a third way for those still on the sidelines.
Eritreans commit tactical retreat
The following EPLF military communiqué from inside Eritrea was radioed to Khartoum and telexed to the Guardian at press time.
"On Nov. 18 the Ethiopian military regime unleashed the second phase of its offensive. Due to ongoing battles and for strategic military reasons we resolved to make a tactical withdrawal from our eastern front. Based on this decision, we announce the withdrawal of our forces from their positions on the Asmara-Massawa road on Nov. 21. Battles continue; details will follow later”.
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