Khartoum, Sudan — The strategic Horn of Africa today is being buffeted by a number of conflicts that show little sign of ending. Ethiopia, for example, is faced with no fewer than four major rebellious upheavals within its frontiers. And neighboring Somalia, Sudan, and Djibouti are wrestling with the problems of more than two million refugees who see little hope of repatriation.
Ethiopia's strong man, Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, appears to have decided (reluctantly, according to some diplomats) to use Soviet-backed military repression as the only viable means of bringing Eritrean, Somali, Oromo, and Tigrean secessionist groups to heel.
Any political concessions toward demands for self-determination, the Ethiopians fear, would only contribute toward the complete disintegration of their ethically diverse and impoverished nation.
Over the past six months, the Ethiopians reportedly have been building up their forces inside Eritrea and have concentrated on bringing in more sophisticated weapons in preparation for another major offensive against the insurgents.
Intelligence reports indicate that Soviet ships have unloaded supplies at Massawa, the Red Sea port that replaced Russia's previous naval base at Berbera in Somalia. In addition, transport planes have been bringing Soviet weapons and equipment to Asmara, in Eritrea.
Western diplomatic sources say that these deliveries include armored MI-24 helicopter gunships, which have been used effectively against guerrilla forces in mountainous regions in Afghanistan, helicopter transports, and more than 200 tanks and armored cars.
Furthermore, the Soviet Union has flown in 200 more advisers and technicians to assist the Ethiopians. An estimated 14,000 Cubans and several hundred Soviet advisers already on hand are helping the Addis Ababa regime in its fight against the insurgents throughout the country.
Most distressing are reports from both rebel and diplomatic sources that the Ethiopians have brought up supplies of lethal GA nerve gas to the Eritrean front. Rebel sources maintain that the chemical gas equipment has been spotted by informers in the Eritrean region.
An estimated 100,000 civilians are said to be living in the Eritrean battle zones where this gas might be used. If gas were, indeed, used, it could cause many deaths, as there is no known antidote.
Past offensives against the Eritreans have ended ignominiously for the Ethiopians despite their superior military hardware. Eritrean resistance forces claim to have inflicted serious casualties on the government forces.
In July 1979, for example, an estimated 80,000 Ethiopian troops backed by Cuban advisers mounted a major offensive on two fronts, but were forced to retreat.
Similarly, in December 1979 the Ethiopias launched another attack against the Eritreans at Nakfa, the rebel stronghold, which included several aerial and land bombardments. Soviet warships had to evacuate Ethiopian forces that had suffered heavy casualties while trying to capture the town.
Observers believe that the new equipment and contingent of Russian advisers indicates that, as in the Ogaden, the Ethiopians are preparing for a massive offensive. But the rebels appear just as determined to continue fighting.
As far as the Ogaden is concerned, the Ethiopians appear to be stepping up the fighting against guerrillas in the area. Over the past few weeks, they have launched five air attacks against refugee camps and towns in Somalia which they claim serve as bases for insurgents in the Ogaden.
The Mogadishu government maintains, however, that since its defeat inside Ethiopia in March 1978, it has not helped the guerrillas militarily.
Nevertheless, with their wives and children cared for in refugee camps in Somalia, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 guerrillas are waging a war of attrition in the Ogaden. Recent refugee reports claim that the fighting has become much heavier over the past two months. Western diplomats believe that the Ethiopian air attacks could herald the beginning of a massive cleanup offensive against the Ogaden insurgents.
The Somali government in Mogadishu, which admits to supporting the Ogaden insurgents morally, has found it difficult to drum up support for pressuring the Ethiopians into granting its ethnic Somalis "self-determination."
The Organization of African Unity (OAU), which has twice formed committees to look into the matter, regards it as a sacred principle that no African state should violate the territorial integrity of another. Hence the lack of African sympathy for the Somali cause.
But the OAU finds it less easy to justify Ethiopia's brutal handling of the Eritrean situation. Eritrea was forcibly integrated into Ethiopia in 1961, so Eritrea's revolt is not merely a matter of border transgression, as in the case with Somalia.
Sudan is another African country whose relations with Ehtiopia are delicate. President Jaafar Nimeiry has sought to bring about a peaceful solution to the Eritrean problem, and his nation is providing refuge for 360,000 Eritreans.
In an attempt to reduce border tensions, the Sudanese have pulled back their refugee camps. They also are trying to encourage Ethiopian rebel groups, which are free to operate politically inside Sudan, to be more discreet. An Eritrean-operated radio station, which until recently broadcast out of Sudan, has been moved to a rebel-held area in Ethiopia.
Mr. Nimeiry, a former president of the OAU, held initial talks with Colonel Mengistu in February 1979, but these failed to produce any positive results. In late May, Colonel Mengistu made a secret visit to Sudan for talks. Later, both leaders claimed to have discussed economic and cultural cooperation, but made no reference to the Eritrean question.
In a recent informal interview, Sudanese Vice-President Abel Alier told this reporter that no progress has as yet been made toward a peaceful settlement.
"Our role is to persuade the Ethiopian that a solution must be found," he said. But while emphasizing Sudan's predicament with having to provide food, jobs, and shelter for all its refugees, he added: "There must be more international involvement. There is a limit to what we can do."