Keesing's Record of World Events (formerly Keesing's Contemporary Archives)

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Keesing's Record of World Events (formerly Keesing's Contemporary Archives),

Volume XXIV, May, 1978 Ethiopia, Ethiopian, Page 28989

© 1931-2006 Keesing's Worldwide, LLC - All Rights Reserved.

Ogaden Area recaptured by Ethiopian Forces with Soviet and Cuban Support -International Ramifications of Ethiopian-Somali Conflict - Incipient Soviet and Cuban Involvement in Ethiopian Warfare against Eritrean Secessionists -Political Assassinations inside Ethiopia

In the armed struggle in the Ogaden area of eastern Ethiopia between Ethiopian troops and Somali forces–consisting mainly of units of the Western Somalia Liberation Front (WSLF) supported by regular troops and aircraft of the Somali Democratic Republic (although the latter did not acknowledge the presence of its forces in Ethiopia until Feb. 21, 1978)–a turning point was reached in January-February 1978 as a result of two successive counter-offensives by the reorganized Ethiopian Army with strong Soviet and Cuban support both on the ground and in the air, and in mid-March Somalia [see 26650 A; 26931 A; 27323 A]. withdrew the remainder of its troops from Ethiopia.

The Soviet and Cuban involvement in the conflict with Somalia, and also in Ethiopian Government operations against Eritrean secessionist movements, became a major factor in early 1978 in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, and strong concern was expressed by various Western governments at the apparently increasing Soviet presence in the Horn of Africa. Soviet influence in the area had initially been concentrated on Somalia, but as explained in Somalia had in November 1977 expelled all Soviet experts, had withdrawn military facilities which had been granted to the Soviet Union and had abrogated the 1974 treaty of friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union, and had in addition broken off diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Although the Somali forces had approached the city of Harar (Harer) in November 1977 [see 28730 A], having captured the strategic town of Jijiga further to the east in September [see page 28634; for maps, see pages 28432 and 28633], they made no further advances and the first Ethiopian counter-offensive was launched on Jan. 21–22 with the use of Soviet-made T-55 tanks, armoured troop carriers, BM-21 multiple rocket launchers and 155 mm and 185 mm artillery–this equipment being far superior to any of the (largely also Soviet-supplied) arms at the disposal of the Somali forces.

A second counter-offensive was reported to have begun on Feb. 3, to have involved an estimated 120 Soviet T-54 and T-62 tanks, advancing from north of Dire Dawa and east of Harar, and to have resulted in at least 3,000 Somali deaths by Feb. 6. According to later reports, a force of helicopter-borne Soviet tanks had landed in the rear of Somali forces who had thus been encircled and destroyed. The Somali Government stated on Feb. 8 that over 600 tanks were advancing through the northern Ogaden while refugees added that the tanks were supported by MiG-21 and MiG-23 aircraft "hunting in packs of 30 at a time". The ruins of Jijiga, against which a special offensive had been started on Feb. 19, were re-occupied by Ethiopian forces after severe fighting on March 3–5.

According to Somali intelligence sources, quoted on Feb. 10, the Soviet officer leading the Ethiopian offensives was General Grigory Grigoryevich Barisov, who had been among the Soviet military advisers to Somalia before their expulsion in November 1977 [see 28460 A].

Not only did Somalia's tank forces suffer heavy losses, but the Somali Air Force virtually ceased to operate by early February, some of its aircraft having been shot down, others being grounded for maintenance and others still not having been committed to battle against superior Ethiopian aircraft.

The Somali Government proclaimed a general mobilization on Feb. 9 and a state of emergency on Feb. 11, when it repeated the order for general mobilization and announced that regular troops would be sent to the front.

General Aden Abdullahi Nur, a member of the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party's Central Committee, claimed on Feb. 13 that in the Mogadishu region alone 30,000 young volunteers had presented themselves for military service.

An earlier claim by the Somali authorities that Ethiopian aircraft had carried out a number of raids on towns in northern Somalia was officially denied in Ethiopia.

Early in December 1977 Hargeisa was said to have been attacked by Ethiopian jets causing the death of at least nine persons, and on Dec. 28 it was officially claimed in Mogadishu (the Somali capital) that eight Ethiopian aircraft had raided Hargeisa (killing two children and injuring 13 persons) and also Berbera, and that altogether six Ethiopian aircraft had been shot down. On Feb. 7 six Ethiopian aircraft were said to have again bombed Berbera and Hargeisa.

Mr Cyrus Vance, the US Secretary of State, declared on Feb. 10 that in agreement with other Western countries the United States was ready to supply Somalia with arms if the current Ethiopian counter-offensive should turn into aggression against Somalia, but that the Soviet Union had assured him that Ethiopian troops would not enter that country. (Mr Vance also said that what was happening in the Horn of Africa was "not compatible" with a reduction of forces in the Indian Ocean on which US-Soviet discussions had been taking place for over a year.)

Lieut.-Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Ethiopian head of state, confirmed on Feb. 14 that Ethiopian forces would not cross the Somali border, saying: "We will not interfere in any way in the internal affairs of other people. The defensive war we are waging goes as far as our frontier."

An appeal made by the commander of the Ethiopian forces on Feb. 8 for the immediate surrender of Somali armed forces on Ethiopian territory "under pain of total destruction" remained unheeded. However, after the fall of [see below] Jijiga on March 5 it appeared that the Somali forces had largely ceased offering resistance to their more numerous and better equipped opponents and were withdrawing, while Ethiopian forces successively occupied all major strategic points in the Ogaden area.

The Franco-Ethiopian Railway Company announced on Feb. 25 that the Addis Ababa-Djibouti line, which had been cut by Somali guerrillas in June 1977 [see 28633 A], had been reopened to traffic on that day.

President Carter of the United States, in a message to President Siyad Barreh of Somalia on March 7, proposed that a ceasefire should be called in the Ogaden area and that it should be supervised by neutral observers who would also be able to prevent reprisals against the civilian population.

In response President Siyad Barreh informed President Carter on March 8 that Somali troops would be withdrawn from the Ogaden area and that he was informing the ambassadors of France, West Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States of this decision, and was asking them what aid their countries would henceforth accord to Somalia.

During the night from March 8–9 the US Government informed the Soviet Government of the Somali Government's decision and asked the USSR to show "moderation" on the battle ground and to facilitate a separation of the fighting forces.

The Somali withdrawal was officially announced on March 9 by the Central Committee of the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party, which stated that Somalia had had to "send some units of its forces to support the liberation movements in Western Somalia" and that it was not Ethiopia which had forced Somalia to withdraw, but the presence of Soviet and Cuban forces in that country (estimated by US sources at 11,000 Cuban and about 1,500 Soviet military personnel, said to be under the command of General Vasily Ivanovich Petrov, first deputy commander of Soviet ground troops).

On the same day the Somali Government appealed to the great powers to ensure "the withdrawal of all foreign forces present in the Horn of Africa" and "recognition by the interested parties of the right to self-determination" of the population of the Ogaden area, and also called on the same powers to begin a process which would lead to "a negotiated, peaceful, just and durable settlement" in the area.

In the Somali announcement it was also stated that Somalia had been "advised by big powers to solve the problem in a peaceful manner"; that these powers had guaranteed the withdrawal of foreign troops from the area and had promised that "the rights of Western Somalia" would be safeguarded; and that the Somali decision had been taken partly because "allied foreign forces" had "launched attacks and continuous air raids against some parts of the Somali Democratic Republic".

President Carter, speaking at a press conference on March 9, welcomed the Somali announcement of the troop withdrawal. The United States hoped, he said, that the result of this decision would be an immediate end to the bloodshed in that area; that the Organization of African Unity (OAU) could move quickly to help all parties to end hostilities and to agree on measures enabling the Somali forces to return rapidly to their country; and that, as soon as the Somali withdrawal was complete and Ethiopian forces had re-established control over their own territory, the withdrawal of "the Soviet and Cuban combat presence" would begin. He went on: "The United States looks forward to the complete withdrawal of all foreign forces from the two countries, Ethiopia and Somalia, at an early date. We stand ready to assist the OAU in working out the basis for negotiations between Ethiopia and Somalia which would ensure the territorial integrity of all countries in the region and the honouring of international boundaries." He added that before the United States would be ready to discuss providing economic aid or selling defensive weapons to Somalia there would have to be a tangible withdrawal of Somali forces from the Ogaden and a renewed commitment not to dishonour the international boundaries of either Ethiopia or Kenya.

The Ethiopian Government, in a statement issued on March 10, insisted on Ethiopia's right to seek foreign help to safeguard its territorial integrity and declared that Somalia would have to renounce all territorial claims before ceasefire talks could start.

On March 11 the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry officially rejected Somalia's offer to withdraw its troops from the Ogaden region and named as Ethiopia's conditions for "a just and lasting peace" Somalia's unconditional abandonment of all claims to territory in Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti, and the abrogation of all juridical bases for such claims; a "public and solemn promise" to recognize all principles and decisions of the United Nations and the OAU; and a "solemn" declaration that Somalia would "at all times adhere to international agreements and the principle of a non-military solution of international conflicts".

For the WSLF, however, Mr Abdullahi Hassan Mahmud, its secretary-general, stated on March 11 that its forces would continue to fight until the liberation of Somalis "oppressed" by Ethiopia had been achieved, and he criticized the United States for its "treacherous attitude" adopted in the face of Soviet and Cuban intervention which had caused the loss of "several thousand" Somalis.

The Soviet Government indicated on March 12 that it would not agree to withdraw its own and Cuban forces from Ethiopia in return for the departure of Somali forces from the Ogaden area, this request having likewise been rejected by the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry. The Foreign Ministry also refused a US proposal that observers should be sent from neutral countries to monitor a ceasefire agreement, on the grounds that this would represent interference in matters falling "under Ethiopia's sovereignty" (although the US State Department had announced on March 10 that this proposal had been agreed to by the Soviet Union).

The completion of the withdrawal of Somalia's regular forces from the Ogaden region was announced in Mogadishu on March 14; the US State Department stated on the same day that fighting in the Ogaden desert had "effectively ceased" and that the Ethiopian and supporting Soviet and Cuban forces were respecting the international border with Somalia.

According to diplomatic sources in Nairobi (the Kenyan capital), quoted on March 5, the main Somali force in the northern Ogaden had been "destroyed" and their retreat generally had been "far from orderly". By March 15 more than 100,000 refugees had crossed into northern Somalia alone, while President Hassan Gouled Aptidon of Djibouti sald on March 19 that some 250,000 Ethiopians and Somalis (or more than the total population of his country) had arrived there after fleeing from Ethiopia.

Hr Poul Hartling, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), appealed in mid-April 1978 to 68 governments, including those of Cuba and the Soviet Union, to contribute to a $12,000,000 fund needed to carry out a relief programme for 300,000 refugees in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia. A UNHCR mission had found that many villages in the Ogaden area had been destroyed and that 82,000 persons had been accommodated in emergency camps in Somalia. In Mogadishu, however, it was claimed that 500,000 refugees had reached Somalia, while in Ethiopia UNHCR aid was requested for "over 500,000 persons directly affected by the recent combats in the Hararghe, Bale and Sidamo Regions" (i.e. the Ogaden area).

Confirming the withdrawal of its armed forces from Ethiopia the Somali Government on March 15 called on the superpowers to "fulfil their promise to bring about a just and lasting settlement to the issue in the Horn of Africa" which could "only be arrived at by granting the people concerned their rights to independence and freedom".

A spokesman for the Ethiopian Revolutionary Operations Command announced on March 24 that the last town on the southern front had been recaptured and that the whole front had been liberated, while Ethiopian troops were "reorganizing and pacifying the people".

Mr Mohamed Said Samantar, the Somali ambassador in Paris, had alleged on March 23 that "bloody reprisals" were being carried out against the population of the Ogaden by Ethiopian forces and Cuban "mercenaries", but this was denied by Mr Mesfin Retta, the Ethiopian charge d'affaires in Paris, who in turn alleged that regular Somali forces had "destroyed and pillaged" whole towns in the area.

Mr Samantar also complained that–while "large and medium-sized powers" had "forced Somalia to cease fighting" and had promised that there would be "no massacres or reprisals", that negotiations would be opened immediately and that international forces would be sent in to protect the population–once Somalia had done what had been asked for, everybody had forgotten the problem and had thought that Somalia could be forced to make further concessions. He added that there could be "no peace until the rights of the Somali people to self-determination are recognized and foreign forces have been withdrawn from the Horn of Africa".

Despite the withdrawal of Somali armed forces, the WSLF claimed to be engaged in further battles with Ethiopian troops in late March, and the Somali Foreign Ministry declared on March 29: "Somalia is morally bound to assist its brethren in Western Somalia and will never waver in its determination [to fight for] their right to freedom and independence." It added that its conditions for peace were the removal of foreign troops; the presence in the Ogaden of neutral forces to stem "on-going genocide and reprisals"; recognition of the Ogaden people's right to full independence; and negotiations to be conducted through the OAU.

The Arab League (of which Somalia had become a member in 1974 [see 26392 A]A) decided at a meeting of its Ministerial Council in Cairo on March 29 to extend military and other assistance to Somalia to help it defend its borders against any external attack; to condemn interference by the Soviet Union and Cuba in the conflict; and to call on those two countries to withdraw their forces from the region immediately.

As the Somali Government continued to express its support for the "liberation movements" inside Ethiopia and these movements persisted in claiming to have, at various localities, inflicted heavy casualties on Ethiopian and Cuban troops, Mr Mengiste Desta, the Ethiopian ambassador in Kenya, declared in a statement issued on April 14 that, if such aggression continued, Ethiopia would "take all appropriate measures to deal a severe blow" to Somalia, and that "this time" the battle would "not be fought within Ethiopia's borders".

The nature and volume of Soviet and Cuban assistance supplied to the Ethiopian military regime emerged only gradually during the decisive Ethiopian counter-offensives in January and February 1978, but both the Soviet Union and Cuba had made their attitude to the conflict clear much earlier.

Mr Andrei Gromyko the USSR Foreign Minister, in a speech at a banquet given in Moscow on Nov. 29, 1977, in honour of Brigadier Joseph Garba, the Nigerian Commissioner for External Affairs, called on African peoples to support Ethiopia in its war against Somalia.

Although the Cuban Foreign Ministry had stated on Nov. 5, 1977, that no combatant military units were engaged in Ethiopia, Dr Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader, declared in Havana on Dec. 24: "Cuba's solidarity with the peoples of Africa is not negotiable. We are helping and shall help Angola… [and] the Ethiopian revolution. We shall also help the liberation movements in Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa."

The Ethiopian Government, however, continued at first to deny the presence of any Soviet or Cuban military personnel in Ethiopia.

Major Dawit Wolde Ghiorgis, the Ethiopian Deputy Foreign Minister (and formerly Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Ministry), said during a visit to London on Jan. 18 that Ethiopia wished to remain non-aligned and that, although (he said) there were no military personnel from the USSR or Cuba in Ethiopia, his country was "getting adequate assistance from our friends, enough to defend our territory and our revolution". He also accused "certain reactionary countries" of planning to make the Red Sea "an Arab lake", this plan being condemned by Ethiopia [see also 28348 A; page 28402]. The ethnic minorities in his country, which had been "oppressed under the feudal regime", would (he added) be given regional autonomy, but there would be no "special cases" (for Eritrea or the Ogaden), and all would be treated equally.

Major Berhane Bayih, a member of the 13-man standing committee of the Ethiopian Provisional Military Administrative Council PMAC), speaking in Nairobi on the same day, similarly denied both the presence of any Soviet or Cuban military advisers in his country and also a report that Sr Raul Castro Ruz (the Cuban Minister of Defence) and Marshal Dmitry Ustinov (his Soviet counterpart) were visiting Ethiopia to plan an invasion of Somalia. He accused the United States of having instigated the Somali invasion of Ethiopia and emphasized that there would be "no ceasefire and no peace talks" while Somali troops remained on Ethiopian soil,

The Soviet attitude was explained in statements issued in Moscow on Jan. 18.

It was stated that, after the Somali leadership had, "despite friendly warnings by the genuine friends of the Somali people", decided to send troops to Ethiopian territory, the Soviet Union had, "as always in such cases", sided with the victim–whereas other countries, notably the United States, had aided and abetted the aggressor. The Soviet Government added that "the immediate withdrawal of all Somali forces from Ethiopian territory" was a necessary precondition for a peaceful settlement of the dispute. At the same time it was announced that the Soviet Union was giving "material and technical aid" to Ethiopia to repel Somalia's aggression (although the report of Marshal Ustinov's visit to Addis Ababa was denied).

According to unconfirmed statements made by the Somali side (e.g. on Jan. 20 by Mr Dahir Hussein Dirir, Somalia's charge' d'affaires in Nairobi), there were some 20,000 military personnel from the Soviet Union, Cuba, East Germany and other East European countries fighting in Ethiopia. The military operations by Ethiopia were on Jan. 21 reported to be directed by a committee consisting of Lieut.-Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, five other Ethiopians, five Soviet officers, nine Cubans and two South Yemenis.

The co-ordination of Soviet, Cuban and South Yemeni military aid to Ethiopia was discussed in Moscow by President Brezhnev and Mr Alexei Kosygin (the Soviet Prime Minister) (i) on Feb. 1 with Sr Raul Castro Ruz, the Cuban Defence Minister, and (ii) on Feb. 2–3 with Mr Ali Nasser Mohammed, the Prime Minister of South Yemen. (Mr Mohammed and Mr Kosygin were reported to have agreed on Feb. 2 on aiding Ethiopia's struggle not only against the Somalis in the Ogaden area but also against the Eritrean separatists—see below.)

Dr Feleke Gedle Ghiorgis, the Ethiopian Foreign Minister, on Feb. 13 described the help given to the Ethiopian Army by Cuban "instructors as necessary and justified", and on March 2 Lieut.Colonel Mengistu confirmed for the first time that Cuban troops were fighting at the side of Ethiopian forces. (These Cuban forces had on Jan. 28 been reported to be commanded by General Arnaldo Ochoa Sánchez, who had first visited Ethiopia in February 1977 – see page 28423–and who was said to have played a key role in the 1976 war in Angola–see 27661 A.)

According to Middle East reports of March 8, South Yemeni aid to Ethiopia involved about 2,000 infantrymen, 160 infantry officers acting as military advisers, 60 men manning tanks and artillery units, and 24 pilots flying Soviet MiG interceptors.

The intervention of Cuban forces in Ethiopia was officially supported in Tanzania (for the first time) on March 13, when the government-owned Daily News objected to Western protests against the presence of Cubans in Ethiopia, saying that there had never been such hostility to tile "presence of French or South African forces in a certain number of African countries".

President Senghor of Senegal (whose Government was one of the few in Africa which had not recognized the Government of President Neto of Angola, and who said on April 4, 1978, that he would not change his policy in this respect until Cuban forces had been fully withdrawn from that country) was on April 7 quoted as indicating that he did not disapprove of Soviet-Cuban support for Ethiopia in the Ogaden area as this support was similar to, for instance, France intervening in Mauritania in defence of frontiers inherited from the colonial era. While stressing the principle of the inviolability of such frontiers, however, he also advocated a certain degree of autonomy for the peoples of the Ogaden area and of Eritrea.

When Tass, the Soviet news agency, on March 12 published the Ethiopian Government's rejections of "attempts by the US Government and its allies to interfere in the solution of matters falling under Ethiopian sovereignty" [see above], it described these moves as "attempts to link a Somali troop withdrawal with the presence in Ethiopia of military personnel invited by the Ethiopian Government".

In Havana, the participation of Cuban forces in the fighting in the Ogaden was for the first time officially admitted on March 14.

In an article published in Granma, the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party, it was stated that Cuban air pilots, tank drivers, artillery units and armoured infantry battalions had arrived in Ethiopia in December 1977 and had taken part in the fighting since the end of January 1978–following an urgent call by the Ethiopian Government to the Cuban Communist Party. Granma continued: "The turn in the war has been the Cuban-Ethiopian counter-offensive of Jan. 23–27 near the road between Dire Dawa and Harar. Ethiopia has given guarantees not to cross the Somali frontier…. Aggression against the Ethiopian revolution from Somali territory [must] definitely cease."

The article also stated that the "opportunistic and criminal" attack on the Ethiopian revolution by Somalia had taken place with the knowledge and approval of Western states, including the USA, and was comparable with the (1935) Fascist attack by Italian troops, and that it was only "resolute international aid" which had preserved Ethiopia's independence.

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