Combat & Survival
Volume 10 - Issue 7
Eritrea: A Small War in Africa
By Paul Harris
The main street of Zalambassa is as if from a film set.
A typical border town, its single storied, sunbleached
adobe houses face each other across the mud-covered
street. Most of the shops and homes are barred and
bolted - as if the townspeople expect Clint Eastwood
to ride into town at any moment. Many or the buildings
are pockmarked by bullet holes and some are roofless
and gutted where mortars or artillery shells have dropped
in. Zalambassa is an Ethiopian border town - or at least
it was. Now the Eritreans are here and their front lines
are another couple of miles up the road.
The Eritreans say their neighbours attacked their border
post on May 31. They say they repulsed eight attacks
before they went on the offensive marching into Zalambassa
a week later. Missiles rained down on the Ethiopians, fired
from Stalin Organ BM-21 multiple rocket launchers. Howitzer
shells and mortars smashed into the fields around the
town as T-54 tanks ploughed through the landscape leaving
great furrows. Farm land was carved our with deep trenches,
which would change hands several times over the next few
The bloody border conflict between these two neighbouring
states in the Horn of Africa started on May 6 this year.
Three Lieutenant Colonels of the EDF (Eritrean Defence
Force), together with four soldiers, travelled to the Badme
border area to investigate reports that Ethiopian
administrators and police had moved into an area
contested between the two countries. They found
Ethiopian militias there; were taken aside and shot.
After almost tour weeks of light skirmishing, full scale
war erupted. On June 5 at 14:13 hrs three Ethiopian MIG-23
jets attacked Asmara airport. Fifty minutes later, Eritrean
jets bombed the MIGs' military base in Ethiopia at Mekele.
Unknown to the Eritrean Air Force, the Ethiopians had
admitted large numbers or civilians to the military
airport to welcome back their 'heroic' pilots. Around
40 civilians died in the air attack. Next day, the
Ethiopians attacked Asmara again with three MIG-23s,
but accurate anti-aircraft fire brought down two of the
Within 24 hours full scale war had broken out on the borders.
The following day, the Ethiopians attacked hundreds of miles
away to the east with a drive towards the Eritrean Red Sea
port of Assab. Although border incursions were alleged, it
seems more likely that the Ethiopians had decided to attempt
to secure a much needed port on the Red Sea. In the event,
the Ethiopian regular army and militias of the Tigrayan
Peoples' Liberation Front (TPLF) were beaten back on all
At Zalambassa, the EDF secured a strategic ridge from which
they could look down on Ethiopian forces who several times
attempted to storm the EDF positions in human wave attacks.
Hundreds - if not thousands - of men died in these attacks,
mown down by machine gun fire, mortars, artillery and rockets.
One attack was made by crack Ethiopian paratroopers but
they also sustained serious casualties and fled. Privately,
EDF soldiers say the Ethiopians lost two divisions - some
10,000 men - around Zalambassa.
The streets of Zalambassa were littered with bodies which
baked in the sun for days until they were scooped up and
dumped in a mass grave.
The Ethiopians tried similar suicide tactics on the Assab
front. One EDF soldier said, "They just kept coming and we
kept on mowing them down." After two days of such attacks
the EDF commander decided to move forward and his troops
drove the Ethiopian soldiers thirty kilometres into their
The Ethiopian attacks appear to have been misconceived
and to have taken no account of the lessons of history.
The State of Eritrea was carved out of Ethiopia in a long,
thirty year war which brought about the demise of the two
Ethiopian governments of Emperor Haile Selassie and Marxist
dictator Mengistu. It was the longest continuous war that
modern Africa has known. Every person in Eritrea - bordered
to the east and north by Sudan, to the south by Ethiopia and
Djibouti - is fiercely proud of this remarkable achievement.
The men and women who took part in what Eritreans call The
Struggle are deeply respected for their contribution and are
known as The Fighters. There are more than three million
people in Eritrea. When you ask the stock question, which
is a starting point for a Combat & Survival correspondent,
"What is the size at your army?" you invariably get the
response, quick as a flash, "Three million, of course."
For an African state, Eritrea is remarkably unified, hard
working and dedicated to national improvement. The Struggle
brought death and tragedy to virtually every family: around
65,000 fighters died taking on MIG jets, tanks and rocket
launchers provided by the Soviet Union: they are known as
the Martyrs, as well as 150,000 civilians.
The war of independence was notable for the fact that
that large numbers of women joined men on the front lines
in combat. So, when fighting broke out on the border
with Ethiopia on May 6 this year, there was no lack
battle-hardened fighters heading for the front.
There were no official figures for the size of the Eritrean
Defence Force although an establishment of 46,000 is often
quoted from outside the country. There are the men and women
carrying out National Service; there is a small, elite
commando brigade made up of former Fighters: a core regular
army of around 5,000 soldiers who have chosen to stay on
after National Service; and a vast body of men and women
who regard themselves constantly on call. Within hours of
hostilities breaking out with Ethiopia, it is reckoned that
in excess of 200,00 fighters had come forward for service
at the front; around 100,000 thousand were actually deployed.
Every man or woman is required to undertake National Service
upon reaching the age of 18. This invariably takes the form
of six months basic military training. One Fighter said,
"Every adult in this country has learned to use all the
weapons in our armoury". This means that not only are all
personnel trained in pistol, rifle and AK-47 use, but they
also learn to use howitzers and mortars. After six months
basic training there is a choice of remaining with the EDF
or spending the next twelve months in the service of the
country in a variety of roles - varying from road building
to traffic police and parking attendant. There is a nominal
payment during the period but food and board is provided by
The EDF is a low tech but highly motivated army. A
government spokesman told me, "We have the most cost effective
army in the world - and one at the best trained." Thirty
years of experience of guerrilla warfare have honed supply
and logistics to a fine art. Although the Ethiopians are far
more numerous and better armed in terms of artillery, airpower
and tanks, Eritrea is virtually surrounded by mountains and
the landscape rather favours the tough and experienced infantry
men of the EDF who are well practised at trench style and
mountain warfare. The only way to dislodge the EDF once
entrenched would be by bayonet charges and bloody hand-to-hand
fighting: they proved more than able to counter this type of
attack during May and June.
The AK-47 is the standard infantry weapon and RPG-7s and
mortars are also in use. Virtually all of the heavier
weaponry was captured from the Ethiopian army in the 1970s
and 80s: so-called Stalin Organ multiple rocket launchers,
howitzers and T-54 tanks.
There are believed to be around 90-100 main battle tanks.
Spares for the Russian-built kit are being supplied from
Romania; Israel is involved in brokering some arms deals.
Several Russian-built tanks were captured during the
fighting of June 5-8 this year and a significant quantity
of trucks and light 4x4s also appear to have been taken.
EDF officers were to be seen being proudly driven around
Zalambassa in Russian UAZ 4~s still bearing their
Ethiopian number plates!
Training of the EDF has been assisted by the US with joint
exercises mounted. The US has also just wound up a mine
disposal operation which has disposed of tens of thousands
of mines left over from the war of independence. The
Italian armed forces have been involved in an advisory/
training role but their involvement ceased with the present
In 1991, Eritrea acquired significant Ethiopian naval
assets along with the Red Sea ports of Massawa and Assab.
They sold off most of them around 1993 and planned to
reinvest the money in communications and electronic warfare
equipment. In 1996 the Eritrean Air Force bought six
Italian Aermacchi 339 advanced fighter training aircraft,
and, the following year, got eight Finnish Rodigo trainers.
A Chinese Y-I2 transport acquired in 1992 has now effectively
been decommissioned. There is an unknown quantity of Mil-17
helicopters but no helicopter gunships. The trainers have
been adapted for a ground attack role. Although sophisticated
command, control and communications equipment has been
ordered by the Ministry of Defence this was not in place
in time for use in the June conflict.
If their military operation had been properly planned and
coordinated, the Ethiopians should have been able to utilise
their superior air power, tanks and artillery to immobilise
key targets and mount a blitzkrieg on EDF positions. In the
event it appears there was no coordinated strategy which
lends weight to one view that the Ethiopians had simply
"let the TPLF militias off the leash" in the hope that they
could achieve some easy successes in border clashes.
Government sources in Asmara contradict this view pointing
to the fact that over the period May 16-18, Ethiopian TV
showed pictures of large numbers of regular soldiers being
deployed in Hercules aircraft to areas around Eritrea's
borders, and the fact that the Ethiopian High Command moved
to the war zone. In the event, the highly trained and
motivated EDF proved more than a match for both the
Ethiopian militias and the regular army.
Eritrea's War of Independence
In 1962, Emperor Haile Selassie annexed the former Italian
colony of Eritrea, which Ethiopia had administered under
United Nations mandate for a decade. The colony had
previously been run by the British who seized it from the
Italians in 1941 after almost half a century of colonial
rule from Rome. The creation of Eritrea by the Italians
had brought about powerful feelings of independence and
cultural identity in the population and shortly after the
Ethiopian annexation a group of nationalist stole two pistols
and attacked a police station. The fight for independence -
which was to last for thirty years - had begun.
The first freedom fighters were organized under the Eritrean
Liberation Front (ELF) but as the independence movement
grew it fractionalised and eventually the Eritrean Peoples'
Liberation Front (EPLF) emerged as the major player.
It has been described by intelligence sources as 'the most
effective guerrilla force to emerge anywhere in the world':
between 1962 and '77 the ELF and EPLF took control of 90%
of Eritrea. But When Haile Selassie was replaced by the
Marxist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the tide began
to flow militarily against the Eritreans. Mengistu's regime
was supported by the governments of Russia and Cuba which
appreciated the strategic significance of the Horn of Africa.
Ethiopian forces received military training from the Russian
and Cuban military. Military equipment flowed into the
arsenals of the Ethiopian army. Most significantly the
Ethiopians were given MIG-23 fighter bombers armed with
deadly cluster bombs and napalm, as well as T-54 tanks,
Zil trucks and 'Stalin Organ multiple rocket launchers.
In the north of Eritrea, the centre of resistance, the town
of Nacfa, was totally destroyed by aerial attack and the
Eritreans, who had no defences against attack from the
air, were forced to abandon the area in an operation called
the Strategic Withdrawal: a classic Maoist guerrilla strategy.
After 1978, the Ethiopians launched annual Soviet-planned
offensives. In 1982, they launched the massive Red Star
offensive in which they utilised their entire military
resources. The offensives continued through 1985, even
when Eritrea was gripped by a devastating famine. All the
offensives were fought off by EPLF soldiers, still referred
to - to this day with great and genuine respect - as The
Fighters. A 250 mile-long trench network was created,
separating the two armies. By 1984, the EPLF had captured
enough Soviet tanks to defeat the Ethiopians in a classic,
set piece tank battle.
In 1988, the EPLF broke out of its dug-in positions and
captured the garrison town of Afabet, destroying an entire
Ethiopian division. Although with just 35,000 men and women
under arms the Eritrean forces were less than 10% of the
size of their enemies, this was the turning point of the war
which armed up the EPLF with a large quantity of brand new
military equipment: tanks, l30mm howitzers and vast supplies
of ammunition. In February 1990, they captured the port of
Massawa and then encircled the capital, Asmara. By this
time, the Eritreans were holding 50,000 Ethiopian prisoners
of war and the end was in sight.
By May 1991 the capital was surrounded. President Mengistu
of Ethiopia, staring defeat in the face, fled to Zimbabwe
abandoning his troops and generals. On May 24 1993 Eritrea
was formally declared independent after a referendum - and
thirty years of war.
- The Soviet-built Stalin Organ multiple rocket launcher, which
was captured from the Ethiopians during the war of independence,
which ended in 1991, was turned against its former owners:
Sami Sallinen via Paul Harris;
- An Eritrean Defence Force officer directs rocket fire onto
Ethiopian positions: Sami Sallinen via Paul Harris;
- Cheerful EDF soldiers redeploying at dawn on board a
- Women of the EDF parade in the capital, Asmara, Sami Sallinen
via Paul Harris;
- EDF soldiers rest after battle, Zalambassa;
- Most of the vehicles at Radio Marina are Soviet, these are
BRDM-2 wheeled APCs, but there are also some former US
assets dating back to the period before Soviet influence
came to Ethiopia.