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The Ethiopian counter-offensive (1978-1988)

Between 1978 and 1983, with the support of the Soviet Union, Ethiopia led six major offensives in which an estimated 30,000 Eritreans and 50,000 Ethiopians died. In the second half of 1978, Ethiopia launched an offensive of 120,000 soldiers and hundreds of Russian tanks on EPLF and ELF positions, regaining most of the Eritrean territory which had been held by the two organizations. In response, the EPLF, lacking support from the outside and inspired by Mao Zedong’s teachings on guerrilla techniques, engaged in a “strategic withdrawal” to its bases in the Sahel region and later around the city of Nakfa, from which it conducted hit-and-run attacks.

The ELF, with support from Arab countries, attempted to resist the Ethiopian offensive and ended up significantly weakened. Its leaders blamed the EPLF for not fulfilling the unity agreement and not joining its troops in battle, whereas the EPLF accused the ELF leadership of opening secret negotiations with Ethiopia through the Soviet Union and its Arab allies to reach a separate peace settlement. The revival of long-held antagonisms and the withdrawal of the ELF from its positions in the Sahel led in August 1980 to the second round of clashes between the two Fronts, this time initiated by the EPLF.

The strategy adopted by the EPLF paid off. By 1980, its forces had managed to stop Ethiopian offensives, seize some of their supplies and weapons, and stabilise a frontline in the Northern Red Sea region. The ELF, which was confronted by the Ethiopian army and EPLF fighters, was driven over the border into Sudan, where its troops were disarmed by the Sudanese authorities. The organization subsequently split into competing factions. By late 1981, the EPLF emerged as the only force fighting on Eritrean soil, although it remained isolated on the international scene with the Soviet Union and its affiliates backing Mengistu’s regime and the United States and their Western allies reluctant to support a Maoist-inspired “liberation movement”.

In 1982, the EPLF faced the sixth and most violent offensive of the Ethiopian army, known as the “Red Star Campaign”, which involved a total of 100,000 Ethiopian troops equipped by the Soviet Union. On this occasion, Mengistu moved his office to Asmara to oversee military operations which were deployed on three fronts: Barka, Nakfa and around Alghena. The offensive involved the massive use of air power and toxic gas that the EPLF resisted by building a network of underground bases and fabricating homemade gas masks and other equipment. The EPLF was able to survive the offensive, which, according to EPLF sources, caused 33,000 Ethiopian casualties and 2,000 Eritrean casualties. This outcome gave renewed confidence to the EPLF, whereas the Derg army became severely demoralised from its attempt to destroy Eritrean resistance.

The Soviet Union continued to provide assistance to Ethiopia, and by 1984 military assistance was estimated to have totalled four billion US dollars. Despite Soviet assistance to Mengistu’s regime, the EPLF managed to consolidate its positions and launch sporadic attacks against the Ethiopian military presence throughout the country, destroying materials and ammunitions. The Front was, however, affected by famine between 1983 and 1985 which prevented it from maintaining the territory it had regained. At the same time, though, the EPLF secured assistance including food aid from international NGOs and the Eritrean diaspora.

During this period of military stalemate, the EPLF reorganised its operations and moderated its discourse to attract more support. From 12 to 19 March 1987, it held its Second Congress, during which delegates decided to soften the 1977 Marxist program and engage in building a “broad national democratic front”. During this congress it was also made clear that the “correct way” (and therefore only way) for women to seek liberation was to join the armed nationalist struggle and “their true representative [the National Union of Eritrean Women] NUEW”. Isaias Afwerki became the secretary of the newly elected Central Committee, with Romedan Mohamed Nur as his deputy. The EPLF soon attracted former members of the ELF.



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