Ethiopian forces captured a strategic town well within Eritrea in a swift overnight advance and pushed on Thursday toward a key provincial capital, sending more than 200,000 refugees fleeing for safety and sealing control of one front in a rapidly broadening border war.
The taking of Barentu, after seven days of fighting, handed Ethiopia what had been the Eritrean army's command center for the western front and set up Ethiopian forces for a possible flanking move toward the central front to the east of here. Barentu, astride a major highway 25 miles from the nearest border point in southwestern Eritrea, also had been a supply center for Eritrean forces in the region and was the largest trophy so far in two years of off-and-on conflict.
Eritrea announced the town was falling Wednesday night under an assault by artillery, warplanes and infantry. The government in Asmara, the Eritrean capital about 100 miles east of Barentu, said Thursday its troops have withdrawn and 200,000 refugees, having fled the fighting, are in need of international assistance.
Official Ethiopian broadcasts said more troops headed beyond Barentu on Thursday along the road leading to Akordat, the regional capital 40 miles to the northeast. Authorities in Asmara urged Akordat's residents to evacuate before the Ethiopians arrive, which raised the specter of another wave of refugees heading down the road in a country already facing food shortages.
Mendefera, 37 miles south of Asmara, also was emptying in fear of advancing Ethiopian forces, said Worku Tesfamichael, director of the state-run Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission.
Ethiopia's military campaign already has driven 550,000 Eritreans from their homes or makeshift camps, Tesfamichael said. With the addition of another 300,000 people already affected by a regional drought, Eritrea's needs were staggering, a U.N. official said.
"I don't think it would be less than a humanitarian crisis," said Simon Nhongo, the U.N. resident coordinator for Eritrea. Authorities have asked U.N. agencies here for help in obtaining relief supplies of food, water and tents.
In Nairobi, Kenya, the regional operations center for the U.N. World Food Program, spokeswoman Brenda Barton said getting food to Eritrea was "looking extremely problematic."
A senior Ethiopian commander, flush with the victory, declared the aim of his troops is not only to reclaim territory Eritrea has occupied since the conflict erupted but also to "emasculate" Eritrea's military and remove it as a threat to Ethiopia's control of land along the contested border.
The statement by Col. Gabre Kidan illustrated the punitive undercurrent of Ethiopia's current offensive against its former colony and what appears to be a desire by leaders in Addis Ababa to act decisively in this round of fighting against their rivals in Asmara.
Eritrea's leaders, who waged a long rebellion against Ethiopia during the harsh Marxist government of Haile Mengistu Mariam, separated peacefully in 1993 and founded an independent country. They were at first on good terms with the new Ethiopian leadership, which also emerged from the revolt against Mengistu, but since then have been locked in a hostile confrontation over contested borders and an array of issues ranging from personal rivalry to economic advantage.
"Our main goal is emasculating the enemy troops," said Kidan in an interview at this crossroads town south of Barentu and about 20 miles west of Eritrea's border with Ethiopia. "Wherever we find them, we will do that."
Asked whether that meant Ethiopian forces will try to move all the way to Asmara, Kidan replied: "Where our Ethiopian troops are is not the main point. What is important is how many of their troops are put out of service. Only when that is done will we avoid any threat against Ethiopia.
"What I want to emphasize," Kidan added, "is that we are notinterested in occupying Eritrean territory."
Eritrea, meanwhile, condemned the U.N. Security Council's decision Wednesday night to impose an international arms embargo against both warring countries, saying the measure was unfair because Ethiopia started the current round of fighting with an offensive against Eritrean-held borderlands last Friday.
"Ethiopia is the aggressor," Eritrean spokesman Yemane Ghebremeskel told reporters. "This has never been a border war. Ethiopia has used the border issue as a pretext to invade Eritrea."
Ethiopian officials also cast their country as the victim, however, noting that Eritrea began the crisis by invading the disputed border land two years ago. Kidan, for instance, said Ethiopia has no intention of prolonging the war, but rather wants to prevent endless rounds of fighting by crippling Eritrea's military.
From this Eritrean village that fell to his forces six days ago as Ethiopia began its push, Kidan surveyed the Plain of Badame littered with spent artillery shells and burned out armor.
Ethiopian troops had taken the plain, which both countries claim, amid much bloodshed more than a year ago. But Eritrea mounted a counteroffensive and its troops dug into a network of defensive trenches _ now abandoned but for bodies and belongings after last week's fighting.
"You will see this war has an end, not by destroying every soldier in Eritrea, but by incapacitating parts of the force," Kidan said.
U.S. commits food aid
in effort to avoid famine
WASHINGTON _ The U.S. government committed another 225,000 metric tons of food aid to the Horn of Africa as a special U.N. envoy declared Thursday that widespread famine can still be avoided.
Hugh Parmer of the U.S. Agency for International Development told the House International Relations Committee that 175,000 tons had been approved for Ethiopia and 50,000 for other countries in the region.
The new allotment boosts total U.S. aid to 909,000 metric tons for the region torn by drought and renewed war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. A metric ton is about 2,205 pounds.
Renewed fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea has complicated food aid efforts, Parmer said.
Also at the hearing, special U.N. envoy Catherine Bertini said another famine in the Horn can be avoided despite the renewed war and third straight year of low rainfall.
_ Information from the Washington Post and Associated Press was used in this report.