From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Thu Feb 26 2009 - 06:33:48 EST
Operation Fenkil: The Major Operation That Heralded Eritrean Full
Feb 26, 2009
The month of February marks Operation Fenkil, which is one of the historic
victories in the Eritrean thirty years of struggle for liberation. This
operation heralded that the clock was racing against the downfall of the
brutal Dergue regime. Following the operation, the liberation of the country
already became apparent as the then Secretary General of the Eritrean
Peoples Liberation Front comrade Isaias Afewerki had said in an interview:
“Eritrea’s independence is now only a matter of months”.
>From 8 to 10 February, 1990, Eritrean freedom fighters registered a decisive
military victory over the then biggest army in the sub Saharan Africa armed
to the tooth with sophisticated Soviet weaponry in contrast to the Eritrean
fighters’ modest arsenal coupled with high morale and patriotism. “The
operation was a pinnacle of success to the EPLF and it proved right for its
steadfastness and justified grounds,” says Asmerom Habtemariam, a veteran
fighter and one of the first journalists of Radio Dimtsi Hafash (Voice of
the Broad Masses). “Next to the demise of Nadew command, the collapse of the
Ethiopian army in operation Fenkil was another crucial turning point in the
history of the armed struggle.”
* The demise of Nadew Command
The demise of Nadew command, a fortified command of nine years in 48 hours
(17 March - 19 March 1988) was a bitter pill to swallow. The victory, which
liberated the town of Afabet, was equated by renowned historian Basil
Davidson to the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which ended the French colonization
“The downfall of the command was one of the major successes that manifested
the change of balance of power and the upper hand of the EPLF over a heavily
armed military regime aided by Soviet military advisors,” added Asmerom
“With its 20,000 strong soldiers armed with sophisticated arsenals and
mechanized units, the defeat of the Dergue in Nadew command, emboldened the
EPLF’s fighters’ morale, leaving the Dergue regime in despair. It was also a
stepping stone toward the operation Fenkil” says major general Filipos
Weldeyohannes, Commander of the 5th Operation Zone.
“Not only did it boost the morale of the valiant fighters, but we also
acquired sophisticated soviet made armaments that had been of great use
during the operation Fenkil,” added the major general. He explained that the
Dergue regime tried its best to retake the town of Afabet for about 5 months
of by deploying soldiers that were stationed in various parts of Eritrea,
Ethiopia, and Somalia, but to no avail. At the battle, three Soviet military
advisors were captured and were later released. After the downfall of the
Nadew command, the Halhal command follow suit. Consequently the Dergue
regime forced to retreat from Akurdat, Barentu and Tessenei. In both
commands, 60.000 Dergue soldiers put out of action.
The continuous defeat of the Dergue army in several commands and campaigns
made the army’s senior officers and soldiers lose hope on the fate of the
ruling junta. “The demise of Nadew Command in particular, led to a foiled
coup d’état by a dozen of Dergue generals, who were later executed. This
incident happened to be of great blow to the regime and demoralized the
army,” recalls Asmerom Habtemariam.
In response to the defeat, the Dergue beside the barbaric killing of
innocent civilians in different towns and villages of Eritrea, it brutally
murdered 400 civilians in Shieb in 12 May 1988. Out of the innocent victims,
80 were crushed to death by tanks and the rest were killed by gunfire from
the tanks and the foot soldiers. “The Shieb massacre, an unprecedented one,
led the people and the freedom fighters to further fight against the
regime,” says Asmerom.
Alexander De Waal a British writer and researcher on African issues, writes
on his book, Evil Days, “The defeat at Afabet led President Mengistu to make
his first admission of the existence of the war for ten years. In a
televised speech on March 31st, Mengistu said that the money spent on the
war each year could have built four major universities or ten large
hospitals. He declared that extra effort was needed to meet the threat ‘from
now on, everything to battle front’.” Colonel Mengistu, at this juncture had
to come into terms with President Siad Bare of Somalia after the fierce
battle of Ogaden in 1977/78. A week later of the televised speech, Mengistu
signed an agreement for the redeployment of troops from Ogaden to Eritrea.
* The Dergue doomed to failure in Fenkil Operation
EPLF’s knowledge of the general topography of the area and especially the
battle field during the 1977 – 1978 battle was an advantage, says maj.
general Filipos. Furthermore, the surveillance team of the 85th division
took the responsibility of surveillance of the whole area for about a year
during the late 1980s. In the meantime, the 70th division was in intensive
training and attacked Assosa in Ethiopia, 1650 kms away from Massawa.
It’s worth mentioning that the surveillance teams of the naval forces and
other Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front divisions were also doing their jobs
competently, maj. general Filipos pointed out.
The operation in Assosa was a success in diverting the Dergue’s attention,
says major general Ghebrezgabhier Andemariam, Commander of the 4th Operation
The surprise attack in Ethiopia was unexpected by the Dergue and this helped
gaining upper hand during the Operation Fenkil, added the major general.
Preceding the operation, though, some infantry and mechanized units of the
EPLF were made to be stationed along the Marsa Ibrahim, a frontline that
stretched for about 80 kms, notes major general Filipos. “In the year 1989,
the EPLF fighters were engaged in intensive trainings in all sections of the
front, ranging from infantry to mechanized units, while small scale
preparatory campaigns were carried out. In Adi Shumay campaign for instance,
the EPLF fighters attacked the Dergue army at Adi Eile, in which the latter
suffered heavy casualties. In that campaign 20 tanks were destroyed while 10
others were captured, which later turned their gun to the Ethiopian army
during the Operation Fenkil, says major general Ghebrezgabhier. “As the
saying has it, ‘Your foe’s friend is your foe, while your foe’s foe is your
friend’, the EPLF crushed the 10th division of the Dergue army which
previously had been a headache to the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front, in
Shieb” he added.
“The EPLF dispatched the 19th division headed by current brigadier general
Abraham Andom to Shire, a town inside Tigray, to quicken the demise of the
Dergue rule in Eritrea and Ethiopia,” says major general Ghebrezgabhier.
The issue of deployment of aid forces by the Dergue during the operation
wasn’t taken lightly. “The thorough study specified the nitty-gritty of the
operation,” says major general Ghebrezgabhier. According to the study, it
was concluded that regime’s 9th, 18th, and 23rd divisions would soon be
deployed. To confront these, the leadership decided to dispatch EPLF’s 96th
division. The study concluded that the division 85th would be deployed in
the Asmara-Massawa road, while the 61st division would handle all the way
from Filfil Selemuna to Gindae, as the 70th division was assigned to attack
from Kintsal to Massawa. Also the fast boats of the EPLF naval forces, armed
with modified B21 and 75mm artillery to deal with the huge Ethiopian
warships of 35 years’ experience at sea.
“Strategically speaking, Massawa was decisive for the continuous stay of
the Dergue regime in Eritrea. Being a sea outlet, it had been a life line
for the shipment of the armaments and logistics from its suppliers,” says
major general Romedan Osman Auliyay. It was concluded that liberation of
the city would fasten the knot around the Dergue’s neck and create conducive
environment to liberate cities and towns in east and south of Eritrea like
Dekemhare, Adi Keyih and Senafe,” maj. general Romedan noted.
* The launch of the operation
The EPLF launched the coordinated attacks on Thursday, February 8, 1990 at
1:00 AM across 200 kms defense line stretching from the western periphery of
Keren south wards to Ras Kobae, 40 kms north of Massawa. Within the early
four hours of the battle, the western wing of the EPLF forces captured seven
tanks, five BM-21 launcher rockets and other military hardware. The eastern
flank of the Ethiopian defense lines was broken by mid Friday, Feb 9, and
the EPLF forces began to close in toward Massawa in a pincer movement. In
doing so, they advanced 60 kms forward. But they had to mop up the chain of
closely spaced Ethiopian garrison dotted on the Asmara-Massawa road
stretching for 40 kms. After a fierce battle that spanned for 72 hours,
finally the port city of Massawa fell at the hand of the victorious Eritrean
Peoples Liberation Front at noon Saturday, February 10.
The Ethiopian army desperately attempted to turn the tide of events and
mounted an abortive counter attacks in the following days. On Monday,
February 12, Ethiopian troops set out from Dahlak Islands in an attempt to
gain a foothold in Massawa. The endeavor was repulsed with the Ethiopian
army losing almost half of its total fleet strength. On the following days,
the Dergue army tried its best, yet to no avail.
Following the bitter defeat, the Dergue military regime had to face the
magnitude of casualties and material loss. Around 8000 soldiers along with a
number of senior commanders, including Brigadier General Telahun Tekle and
Brigadier General Ali Hajj Abdallah succumbed to the EPLF fighters. More
than eighty tanks, seven BM, twenty one rocket launchers, six 122mm
artillery guns, ten guided anti-tank missiles, artilleries and other
ammunitions were captured. On the operation twenty four tanks, four
infantry, three mechanized brigades were put out of action. Also, when
Gahtelay fell to the 85th division, Colonel Afewerki Tekle with his army and
about 50 tanks surrendered. In a bid to aid the defeating forces, the Dergue
dispatched two MiG combat aircrafts, but to their dismay, both were shot
down by the freedom fighters anti aircraft’s unit.
To deter the EPLF’s progress the Dergue army was launching artilleries to
the battle zone from areas like Bizen and Beit Gergish in Asmara which
hardly yielded any good, says major general Ghebrezgabhier Andemariam.
During the seaborne battle with the heavily armed Ethiopian naval forces,
the young and least armed EPLF naval forces inflicted heavy damage: nine
Ethiopian large warships sank and two others were captured, turning their
muzzles against their original proprietors. “The defeat of the Ethiopian
naval forces by the young EPLF naval forces was a historic one, owing to its
unparalleled dedication and military strategy” says Colonel Ahmed Mohamed
Ali, Chief of Staff at the Eritrean Naval Forces.
The liberation of Massawa sent shock waves through the Ethiopian regime.
Adulis, a monthly newsletter published by the Foreign Relations Section of
the EPLF- European and North American Desks, published the following in its
Vol- VII Number 3, March 1990 edition:
“Addis Ababa first tried in a characteristic manner to deny its defeat.
But in the indirect address broadcasted by Ethiopian radio on
Colonel Mengistu made to the armed and militia, the colonel
that the capture of Massawa will choke the 2nd Revolutionary
and that mean the great downfall of the Ethiopian Armed forces.”
The Dergue regime, instead of pulling together the leftovers of its human
and material resources and accept defeat, it was seen playing a blindfolded
game of hopelessness.
The indiscriminate aerial bombardment of napalm and cluster bombs over
innocent Massawa residents that left many dead, injured and traumatized;
infrastructure leveled to the ground proved right the regime’s utter
desperation. ‘Kibtset – desperation’ a heart-wrenching documentary film
which documented the total destruction of lives and infrastructures, is
still very disturbing to watch. “Though I narrated the script written for
the documentary, I find it traumatizing to watch it because of its heart
breaking footages” says Asmerom.
Eritrea, after successive colonialism that went on for half millennium, got
its proper right through the resilience and determination of its freedom
fighters and its people alike. This significant historic juncture was
preceded by a series of battles fought in the terrains of Nakfa, in the
plains of Barka, in the burning stones of Denkalia and in the vast body of
water of the Eritrean Sea and other parts of the country, which all demanded
a high price - martyrdom.
This momentous commemoration day is not merely a day to celebrate but to
revive our allegiance to our martyrs and be part in the ongoing
developmental endeavors of the country.
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