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The Battle ofAfAbet and Eritrean Independence' Patrick Gilkes In March 1988, the Eritrean People's Liberation Army (EPLA) won a major victory on the Nacfa front, overrunning Af Abet, the command center and main supply base for the Nadew command.1 A skillful EPLA ambush a few miles north of Af Abet caught and destroyed a sizable convoy , containing at least 60 vehicles many from the 29th Mechanized Brigade. In a display of brilliant improvisation, this was immediately followed by an assault on Af Abet, itself. The EPLA took advantage of Ethiopian incompetence, an over-concentration of Ethiopian forces in a non-strategic area with little scope for retreat down the rough and narrow road to Keren, and an absence of senior officers at the critical moment.2 It was an impressive performance, scattering a multidivisional force of about 20,000 men, with thousands killed and captured as well as whole units dispersed in flight; more important, large quantities of ammunition and weapons were seized, including about 50 tanks and 122mm artillery pieces. The EPLA even captured sufficient ammunition at Af Abet to allow its forces to have day-long live firing exercises; for the first time anti-aircraft gunners were able to get live ammunition practice. As a propaganda bonus, three Soviet advisers were captured, and one killed. The British historian Basil Davidson, who was in the area at the time, immediately compared it to Dien Bien Phu.3 Other proEritrean observers picked up the comparison, claiming with some exaggeration that three infantry divisions and a mechanized brigade had *This paper was presented at the 12th annual International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, Michigan State University, September 5-10, 1994.«Northeast African Studies (ISSN 0740-9133) Vol. 2, No. 3 (New Series) 1995, pp. 39-51 39 40 Patrick Gilkes been totally destroyed.4 The battle became a symbol of Eritrean success, seen as the beginning of the end of Ethiopian control of Eritrea. Certainly, Af Abet was a remarkable victory for the EPLA, and a disaster for the Ethiopian Second Revolutionary Army in Eritrea. It had immediate and considerable effects on the military situation. Mengistu immediately ordered a regrouping of Ethiopian forces, abandoning large areas of Eritrea, including the garrisons at Tessenai, Ali Gidir and Haicota in western Eritrea, followed by Barentu on 31 March and Agordat on 2 April. This meant the effective loss of all northern and western Eritrea to the EPLA. The withdrawal from Barentu, in particular , was a serious blow to the army's pride, as Barentu had held out during a long siege in 1977-78, and when lost in 1985, the army had put immense efforts into recovering it two months later. There were equally serious effects in the neighboring Tigrai region.5 There the Tigrai People's Liberation Front (TPLF) was able to capitalize on the withdrawal of troops to reinforce government positions in Eritrea and to launch a series of highly successful attacks. By the end of May, the TPLF had overrun almost all the towns in the region. On the wider political level, Mengistu promptly made a peace deal with President Siad Barre of Somalia, thereby enabling him to move troops from the Ogaden . His Soviet allies speeded up arms shipments but sent a high-level military delegation to reassess the situation, and when Mengistu went to Moscow in July 1988, he came under heavy pressure to push for a political settlement. At the end of March, Mengistu, himself, surprisingly and publicly acknowledged the seriousness of the situation; in mid-May, he declared a state of emergency in both Eritrea and Tigrai regions. This allowed him to place two of his closest associates, both members of the Politburo, as "Overall Administrators"—Lt.-General Tesfaye Gebre Kidan, former Defense Minister, in Eritrea, and Captain Legesse Asfaw, involved in mass mobilization and party work, in Tigrai. In theory this did not affect the position of the army commanders in Eritrea or Tigrai, but in practice it circumscribed their positions closely. The move was coupled with the establishment of a new army for Tigrai, the Third Revolutionary Army, based upon the new army corps—603 corps based at Bahr Dar and Gondar; 604...


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