Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Soviets back genocide in Eritrea

First Published: Unity, Vol. 5, No. 5, March 12-25, 1982.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In heavy fighting over the past few weeks, the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) has stalled and even rolled back an all-out Ethiopian drive to crush the resistance movement. While rallying his troops on the Afabet front, Ethiopian head of state Mengistu and two Soviet aides were seriously wounded. Over 15,000 Ethiopian soldiers have been killed or wounded.

Begun in mid-February, this sixth major offensive since 1978 involves 100,000 Ethiopian soldiers fighting on four fronts in Eritrea. Afabet is the site of the main attack by some 30,000 elite troops moved up from the Ogaden desert in the south after guerrilla activity there was put down with the help of 16,000 Cuban soldiers.

On the northern Sahel front, two Ethiopian brigades attacked from the rear, through neighboring Sudan. This violation of territory is sure to strain growing Ethiopia-Sudan relations. The EPLF halted this drive and has also raided the airport in the Eritrean capital of Asmara three times and burned fuel depots in the port of Mesewa.

Eritrea is an area of four million people and 43,000 square miles located on the strategic Horn of Africa. The present armed struggle for Eritrean independence began in 1962 when former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie annexed Eritrea. From 1952-62, Eritrea was an autonomous federated province of Ethiopia and before that a British (1941-52) and Italian colony (1869-1941).

The EPLF seeks to establish an independent country with a popular democratic government and a non-aligned foreign policy. In 1980, the EPLF proposed a seven-point peace plan calling for an internationally supervised referendum in which the Eritrean people could choose full independence, federation with Ethiopia or regional autonomy. The Ethiopian government has ignored the proposal and believes that, with massive Soviet support, it can crush the Eritrean resistance. If it loses the current offensive, however, the regime will likely face a long-range defeat in Eritrea.

Soviet strategic interests

At least 400 Soviet advisers are assisting the Ethiopian army at the front in this offensive. Soviet-made MiG-21 and MiG-23 jets and MI-24 helicopter gunships are to be used heavily for the first time against the Eritrean guerrillas and villages.

Soviet participation in the anti-Eritrean war stands in sharp contrast to their declarations of support for third world liberation struggles. It is not an isolated policy error, but part of a consistent effort to expand the Soviets’ worldwide imperialist interests.

Ethiopia is located near the strategic shipping lanes of the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean. Whichever superpower controls the region has a stranglehold on Europe’s supplies of Mideast oil. At different times, both superpowers have used Ethiopia as a military base to spread their influence in the region.

Eritrea is Ethiopia’s only access to the ocean, through the port cities of Mesewa and Assab. Both the pro-U.S. government of Haile Selassie and the current pro-Soviet military government have suppressed guerrilla movements in order to prevent Eritrean independence. Before the fall of Selassie in 1974, the U.S.S.R. supported the Eritreans. Today it is slaughtering them. The reasons for the guerrilla war haven’t changed, but the Soviets can now gain more by backing the Ethiopians.

The U.S.S.R. has used Cuban troops and advisers in Ethiopia as well. The guerrillas point out that 3,500 Cuban troops fought in Eritrea prior to February 1978. Today, Cuba claims its troops are only fighting in southern Ethiopia. Even if this claim is true, however, the use of Cubans elsewhere frees up Ethiopian troops to fight in Eritrea.


The Ethiopian government is using chemical warfare against the Eritreans, including chemical gases, napalm and cluster bombs. Hagos Gebrehewet, New York representative of the EPLF, cited the example of the town of Turukruk, which was bombarded February 15 by mortar shells filled with nerve gas.

The Derg now resorts to use of internationally banned poison gases in an attempt to stop the guerrillas. Supplied by the U.S.S.R., the gas can be shot in grenades from tanks, from vaporizers mounted on helicopters and dropped by parachutes in bombs.

The military regime also is prepared to use Tabun and Soman, highly deadly nerve gases that kill in minutes. The smallest amount absorbed through the skin is lethal. The chemicals remain in the land, poisoning plants and water supplies.

International support

There is growing support for the Eritrean liberation struggle internationally. The Arab League has called for Ethiopia’s withdrawal from Eritrea. In Europe, the French Socialist Party (which is the country’s ruling party) and the British Labor Party have also called for Ethiopia to get out of Eritrea.

The U.S. government has remained silent on the issue, not wanting to support the just struggle of the Eritrean people. However, a spokesperson for the National Union of Eritrean Students in North America pointed out to UNITY:

“It’s important to publicize the problem in the U.S., and build support among the American people. The U.S. shares responsibility for the situation, because it was the U.S. government in the 1950’s which caused the federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia through the UN, without Eritrean participation.”

Nafi Kurdi, an EPLF spokesperson in Paris, called on countries and people of the world to “send observers and doctors to witness the fascist acts of the Ethiopian Derg and its allies.” He pointed out that the guerrillas are opposed by “both superpowers,” but promised that the guerrilla struggle would continue until victory.