ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- The two-year war over a strip of parched, largely uninhabited borderland in the Horn of Africa for which tens of thousands of soldiers have fought and died is over, Ethiopia declared Wednesday, proclaiming total victory over Eritrea.
''As of today, we have verified that all our territories have been cleared (of) the invading army,'' Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told a meeting of foreign diplomats here. ''As far as we are concerned, today the war is over.''
The declaration suggested that, after nearly three weeks of intense fighting, Ethiopia is satisfied to have retaken territory seized by its neighbor two years ago, weakened the Eritrean regime and greatly diminished the ability of the Eritrean military to carry on the war. An Eritrean government official, however, says the war is not over while Ethiopian troops still occupy undisputed Eritrean territory, according to The Associated Press.
In massive military operations launched May 12 along the 620-mile frontier, Ethiopia pushed deep into Eritrean-held territory, capturing military command posts, major towns and large expanses of arid, rocky land.
Though hard-pressed by the onslaught, Eritrea denied its troops were defeated. Instead, it said that, in order to facilitate peace talks, the soldiers were voluntarily withdrawn from the contested areas they had occupied two years ago.
Those peace negotiations resumed Tuesday in Algiers, with envoys from the United States, the Organization of African Unity and the European Union trying to broker an end to what has mushroomed into this continent's most lethal conflict. Meles said Ethiopia's focus will now shift to achieving a cease-fire agreement, then a formal peace settlement. But Ethiopian troops will continue to hold some ''indisputably Eritrean territories'' until there is a peace deal, he said.
''Until we have such an arrangement, our troops will remain in positions that they deem are necessary for military purposes, whether they are inside Eritrea or outside,'' the Ethiopian leader said. He specifically mentioned areas around Zalambessa, a recently seized town on the central front.
The Clinton administration and other Western governments have denounced the war as a pointless squandering of lives and money by two of the world's neediest countries. In his remarks to diplomats, Meles said the ''international community'' -- apparent shorthand for the United States and other powerful countries -- now has a choice.
If the outside world agrees to guarantee the security of Ethiopia's prewar border, he promised, all Ethiopian soldiers will quit Eritrea. If they do not, Meles said, his country's military will ''maintain certain positions that are critical to guarantee the security of our army.''
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