As tens of thousands of Eritrean civilians fled advancing Ethiopian troops Friday, the government struggled to set up camps to house and feed them. Ethiopia launched the offensive a week ago to end a two-year border war.
U.N. and Eritrean aid officials said Eritrea, a country of 4-million people in the Horn of Africa, was on the verge of a humanitarian tragedy: the more than half-million people escaping fighting in western Eritrea added to a drought crisis that already threatened 300,000 others.
The lightning Ethiopian offensive caught Eritreans by surprise, splitting families as they fled. Abdullah Ali, 14, rushed home when Ethiopian warplanes roared over Akordat last weekend but found no one there. He fled the town, then boarded a bus evacuating panicked Eritreans.
"I don't know where my parents are," he said.
By midday Friday, 15 trucks and buses brimming with fleeing Eritreans had already arrived at this 2-day-old camp stretched across a desolate, rocky swath of land 10 miles north of Keren. Naizei Woldenu, a regional aid official, said the camp would reach its 30,000 capacity within days.
The new arrivals at Zron started to piece together a routine, hoping their stay wouldn't be long. The able-bodied lined up to help unload trucks of wheat from the United States, dates from Saudi Arabia and milk powder from the Netherlands. Others washed clothes and stretched them over bushes to dry.
In the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, the government denied any intention of taking over recognized Eritrean territory. "Ethiopia had no designs on sovereign Eritrean territory in 1993, and it does not have such designs now," an official statement said, referring to the year of Eritrea's independence from Ethiopia.
The latest round of fighting over the 620-mile border began when Ethiopia retook a piece of disputed territory Eritrea had seized in May 1998.
SIERRA LEONE MISSION: The U.N. Security Council decided Friday to add 2,000 soldiers to the U.N. peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone, where hundreds of U.N. peacekeepers have been held by rebels for more than two weeks. Expanding the force to 13,000 will allow for troops that India, Bangladesh and Jordan have promised will arrive in the next few days.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan, meanwhile, was preparing to recommend an even greater increase _ to as many as 16,500 _ to bolster the force as it tries to salvage Sierra Leone's peace process, said Western diplomats and U.N. officials.