Intro: Thousands of people have died in the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea -- most along the remote border, far from the public eye. VOA's Scott Stearns is at the front, where the armies are separated by less a kilometer of "no man's" land.
Text: Climb down into the Eritrean trenches in Egri Mekel, and you can see how closely this war is being fought. All along the central Tsorona front, there are blown-up tanks, twisted armored personnel carriers, charred rocket launchers, the bodies of hundreds of Ethiopian soldiers lost in last month's advance across the Balesa river.
Smashed automatic weapons with fixed bayonet, rifle grenades, piles of 100-millimeter tanks rounds ... The Eritrean field commander here says it's some of the heaviest fighting he's seen.
Some of the tanks were hit by rocket-propelled grenades, he says. Others were taken out in tank-to-tank combat at less than 20 meters.
Ethiopian tank number 2-2-3-5-0-9 was stopped just short of the (border) line. The burned bodies of its crew still inside. To its right, another tank is on the trench itself -- part of the blue-and-yellow diamond marking ethiopian armor, still visible through the ash.
Ethiopian commander Gherezghihe Amde Michael led troops into battle at Egri Mekel. He's now a prisoner of war in Eritrea.
Lieutenant Gherezghihe says he's never seen anything like it. "I can't explain how this happened," he says. "so many Ethiopian troops going into so much Eritrean artillery."
Falling back toward the Ethiopian lines, he says survivors were jumping over the bodies of dead and wounded comrades -- no one stopping to help those still alive, because there was just too much shooting.
A veteran of the war against dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, Lt. Gherezghihe says Ethiopians have never left their wounded to die. "It's unbelievable to do that," he says. "but we did. It's shocking."
When this fighting started, Ethiopia said there was no fighting. Then, when reporters came to the front and saw the deaths, Ethiopia said the whole thing was a public relations drama, staged to boost Eritrean morale.
Egri Mekel does not smell like a public relations drama. Some of the dead have been buried, but barely. One body has a few spade-fuls of dirt thrown on to cover his head and chest. five more lay nearby, rotting in the sun -- one with his chest blown open. Those who died on the trenches have been bulldozed under, sprouts of stocking feet sticking out from newly-turned soil. Most of the Ethiopian dead still lay in the minefield where they fell, advancing across a dry plain with no cover against Chinese 12-point-six millimeter guns, firing rounds as long as your hand.
Given the scale of the killing here, what's striking is how close the Ethiopians came to breaking through. Eight tanks breached the western flank, followed by three armored personnel carriers and infantry. Eritrean artillery stopped them short of the first command post in the Hazomo plain.
An Eritrean T-55 tank crew listens to the radio as they clean their communications equipment. Dug-in behind a network of underground bunkers, these tanks are hard to see until you're right on top of them. Cannon waist-high to advancing troops.
This front's been quiet since the four days of fighting that Eritrea says killed 10-thousand Ethiopians -- and Ethiopia says it killed nine-thousand Eritreans.
Considering relative field position, Egri Mekel was not a good thing for Ethiopia. Eritrea says it salvaged parts from 20 tanks and is still collecting ammunition.
The first line of Ethiopian trenches is less than a kilometer away on a low hill, clearly visible through scrub thorn trees, west of the Gerhusernai ridge. More than 100-thousand men face each other across this rocky border. Both sides have agreed to An "Organization of African Unity" plan to arbitrate the dispute. Both blame the other for continuing the war. (signed)
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