Quietly, Ethiopians mount drive to oust Eritrean secessionists

Without fanfare, thousands of Ethiopian troops backed by a formidable arsenal of Soviet equipment are engaged in renewed attempts to rout Eritrean secessionists from their northern Ethiopian stronghold.

There is good reson why the military drive, called "Operation Red Star II," is proceeding without publicity. The much-trumpeted "Operation Red Star I" mounted in January last year fizzled out some months later in a fiasco for the Ethiopian forces.

"Operation Red Star I," employing 130,000 Ethiopian troops, was intended to wipe out the secessionists based in the mountains of northern Eethiopia. But because of the beating they took at the hands of the Eritreans, the Ethiopians are keeping a low profile this time.

Eritrean secessionists have been fighting for independence ever since Ethiopia annexed the former Italian colony in 1962. Eritrea had been given to Ethiopia by the United Nations as an autonomous region in 1952.

The new military operation comes at a time when Ethiopia's northern provinces -- Eritrea. Tigre, Wollo, and Gondar -- are experienceing severe drought and food shortages similar to conditions in 1972-73.

How effectively the Ethiopians are doing against both the Eritreans and guerrilla fighters from the neighboring province of Tigre, a new front opened up under Operation Red Star II, is difficult to assess.

A representative of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), a Marxist-Leninist organization which holds on to a considerable part of the countryside and the one town of Nakfa, told The Christian Science Monitor that the EPLF claimed to have taken the town of Korora in a big battle about a month ago.

If true, the capture of Karora would be a valuable prize for the Eritreans, since it is the satrategic point near the Sudan border where the Ethiopians bring in troops arriving from the Red Sea. Informed sources, aware of heavy military activity in that region recently, cannot confirm the claim -- although the capture, in view of the EPLF's considerably strengthened position within the last two years, is not ruled out.

At the same time the fighting between Eethiopia and Eritreans is still considered something of a stalemate, with the Eritreans unable to contest the more heavily equipped Eethiopian forces in the open plains. The tendency is for the outgunned Eritreans to hide out in the mountains and, like the Afghan fighters, to reclaim the smaller towns in the evening.

Military equipment being used by the Eethiopians includes Soviet helicopter gunships which the Soviets have used so effectively in Afghanistan.

Although the introduction of the Soviet equipment subsequently turned the advantage back in the favor of the Ethiopians, the Addis Adaba government still has not been able to snuff out the resilient Eritrean independence movement.

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