Khartoum, Sudan — The guerrilla war in Ethiopia's dissident Tigre Province is escalating sharply, according to Tigrean nationalists. During the past year, government forces in the province have more than doubled to over 40,000 troops supported by sophisticated Soviet heavy arms. So says a lengthy statement issued Feb. 1 by the Tigre People's Liberation Front (TPLF).
However, despite the recent introduction of Soviet-type MI-24 helicopter gunships and large quantities of armor and artillery by the Ethiopian government , the guerrillas claim to have killed or wounded nearly 4,000 Ethiopian soldiers and captured more than 700, while expanding their own operations in the embattled province.
Random acts of government terror, including widespread bombardment, intentional crop destruction, and the arbitrary arrest and execution of suspected guerrilla sympathizers, have driven civilians into the arms of the nationalist movement, the TPLF statement indicates.
Although the Tigrean nationalists concede they are not yet in a position to win a military victory, they cite their developing linkage with other nationalist forces and antigovernment opposition groups as constituting a "terminal challenge to the narrowly based central government."
"In this respect, the present numerical and arms superiority of the Ethiopian Army is deceptive," said the TPLF's Khartoum spokesman. "The Addis Ababa regime commands a superficially powerful military machine, but it confronts opposition throughout the fragile empire-state, and the balance of force is steadily shifting against it."
The TPLF has been fighting six years for what it terms "national self-determination" for the 5 million people of Ethiopia's northernmost province. The front claims to control 80 percent of rural Tigre; the government holds major towns and parts of the main highways.
Biggest weakness of the Tigrean nationalists is the lack of external support, but the TPLF is cementing ties with nationalist movements in the neighboring Red Sea territory of Eritrea and in Ethiopia's Ogaden and Oromo (Galla) regions, along with remnants of formerly urban-based opposition groups, according to the guerrilla spokesman.
The strongest of the various nationalist movements is the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, which has stalemated a government force of some 70,000 men and maintains close coordination with the TPLF along the border between the two northern regions.
Somali officials claim that 100,000 Ethiopian troops are poised along their border for a possible invasion aimed at punishing them for supporting nationalists in the adjacent Ogaden region.
Meanwhile, the TPLF appears to be the fastest-growing new movement, and it, too, is reported aiding additional dissident groups in the heart of Ethiopia.
Over the past year, the TPLF carried out a number of attacks against Ethiopian-occupied garrisons in Tigre and ambushes of government supply convoys and troop movements, according to the TPLF spokesman.
For its part, the government attempted two large-scale military offensives in central Tigre in April and again in late August. A handful of minor towns were reoccupied, but all but one has since been evacuated, according to the guerrilla spokesman, who said these troops are being shifted to western Tigre for another campaign there.
Approximately 1,400 Ethiopian soldiers were killed or wounded during the two abortive campaigns last year that coincided with stepped-up guerrilla operations in southern and western Tigre.
"The junta's response to these losses has been to unleash indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population of central Tigre," the spokesman charged.
he added that these actions provoked an influx of peasants into the guerrilla army.
The spokesman cited a variety of social programs initiated by the TPLF, including land reform and the construction of infrastructural projects at the village level to improve living conditions, as among the reasons for the TPLF's grass-roots support.