Tension remains high on Ethiopian and Eritrea border after a series of clashes in mid-March.
The situation deteriorated on the second weekend of the month (March 14 or 15) following a surprise attack by Eritrean military around Badme area.
Several personnel of an Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) unit were killed by the ambush, as HornAffairs was able to confirm from firsthand sources.
The sources insisted the incident was not an accidental one and appeared uninterested in taking prisoners of wars. The sources did not postulate what prompted the Eritrean attack. Nor was it clear if the Ethiopians were in their own territory at the time. It is to be recalled, however, an Ethiopia-backed Eritrean opposition group had claimed to have attacked a government facility near Asmara on March 11.
ENDF retaliated a few days later (March 18?) crossing several kilometers into Eritrean soil. The specific area through which ENDF crossed the border was described by our sources as “in the Badme area to the east of Tekeze river, but to the west of the Eritrean ambush”.
There are no details on the magnitude ENDF’s attack. Yet, HornAffairs ascertained that the troops remained inside Eritrea at least until last Friday.
The March 20 attacks on the Mai Edaga garage and on a gold mining site further deep inside Eritrean territory took place following these two unreported incidents.
The Eritrean military principal garage near Mai Edaga is about 63 km from Ethiopian border and about 42 Kilometers away from Asmara by air distance. The second target, Bisha gold mine site, is some 75 km away from the closest Ethiopian border and some 95km afar from Asmara by air distance. A Canadian company, Nevsun, and the government of Eritrea jointly own the mining project.
The attack on the two locations is very likely to have been conducted by missile, though a couple of Ethiopian and Eritrean media outlets reported it as an air strike.
The report of missiles around Soloda Mt on March 20 (which I then tweeted as Eritrean) must have been Ethiopian missiles rather than the vice versa. While many residents of Adwa town witnessed the vibration effect of the missiles, military people deemed it unlikely that Eritrea would pick the area as a target. On the other hand, an account of an old man, who lives to the north of Soloda Mt, as having seen a missile (flying quietly with vibrations felt on the ground), was deemed acceptable by ENDF officers with long careers. However, we were not able to corroborate the old man’s account from a second source, nor did we find adequate information on the missile capabilities of ENDF.
The extent of the damage on the two targets remains unknown, as Asmara remained silent regarding both the garage and the mining site. Nevsun, on the other hand, acknowledged an attack on the mining site, describing it as “an act of vandalism [with] no significant impact to operations and no personnel were harmed.”
The confusion regarding the nature of the assault and the its magnitude appears to be the same among Asmara resident sources. A foreigner journalist told HornAffairs last Wednesday that his sources in Asmara confirmed an air strike. Whereas, a United Nations staffer claimed, citing her colleagues in Asmara, that it was “just a big cylinder explosion”.
Ethiopian officials were unwilling to provide adequate information on the matter, though the attack is certain. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told journalists last Friday that his government will comment when a formal allegation of air strike is made. Another senior Minister gave a similar reply to HornAffairs last week on Monday, though we did not deem it newsworthy at the time. Yet, it indicates the line was adopted immediately after the incident.
It appears the “air strike” hypothesis was born out of the perception that Ethiopia doesn’t own such artilleries rather than a deliberate making of ENDF officials. Yet, the military bras might have found the narrative convenient, as it would improve the public image of the Air Force and to avoid potential questions on the capabilities of the nation. Western nations routinely turned down ENDF’s request for advanced weaponry purchases claiming the need to preserve regional power balance and the risk of diversion to a third country.