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Air War between Ethiopia and Eritrea, 1998-2000

The acig journal

Publication of the Air Combat Information Group

By Jonathan Kyzer & Tom Cooper (additional data from Frithjof Johan Ruud)
Jan 17, 2003, 05:29


For almost three years, between the summer of 1998 and late spring 2000, reports about a relatively intensive air warfare came from one part of Africa almost forgotten in the Europe: Ethiopia and Eritrea. Some of the reports were particularly surprising for most observers in the West, as the backgrounds for the capabilities of the two involved air forces were almost unknown. Yet, under a closer look, many interesting details surfaced.

Long Ethiopian Traditions

The history of the air warfare over the Horn of Africa is pretty long, as Ethiopia was the first independent African state recognized by West European powers. The Imperial Ethiopian Air Force (IEtAF) was founded in 1924, with few French airplanes, although there are few reliable records from this time, as only eleven years later, in 1935, this arm was completely destroyed during the Italian invasion. During the second world war, Ethiopians started a guerrilla war against Italians and later actively supported the liberation of their country by British forces in 1941 and 1942.

Swedish Connections

When the IEtAF was reformed after World War II, it was organised with the help of ex-Swedish Air Force personnel. A Swedish general was named as air force commander and a Swedish training team was contracted. Among those were also Count Carl Gustav von Rosen, later well known for his MFI-9 Biafra air operations, in 1968. Obviously owing much to the Swedes and von Rosen, the new Imperial Ethiopean Air Force bought 46 Saab B17A dive bombers and 48 Saab 91 Safir trainers. A swedish officer commanded the air force until 1962 at which time an Ethiopean assumed command (Von Rosen later returned to Ethiopia in 1977, this time pioneering MFI-15 air drops of food supplies during a famine catastrophy; he was, however, killed during a guerilla attack).

Within the IEtAF The Saab B17As were operated for a number of years alongside Fairey Fireflys. As late as 1970 a few of these aircraft were still operating from their base at Asmara (in late 1990s, two B17As have been salvaged from Ethiopia to South Africa, and it is anticipated that one will be restored to flying condition). Known serials of Ethiopian B17As included 316, 335, and 338, indicating that the whole series was 301-346.

The 48 Saab 91 Safir received tail numbers in the 101-147 series, and these were apparently issued in the same sequence as that of the delivery dates.

Tail no Type Ser, no. Delivery date Notes

101 91A 91.107 14/12-46 Crashed before 1958
102 91A 91.108 14/12-46 Stored Ethiopia 2000
103 91A 91.109 14/12-46 Crashed before 1958
104 91A 91.110 14/12-46 Crashed before 1958
105 91A 91.105 28/11-46 Crashed before 1958
106 91A 91.116 09/05-47 Crashed before 1958
107 91A 91.134 04/09-48 Crashed before 1958
108 91A 91.142 04/09-48 In South-Africa 1999
109 91A 91.145 04/09-48 To ET-AAN
110 91A 91.146 04/09-48 Crashed before 1958
111 91A 91.147 04/09-48
112 91A 91.138 22/11-49 Crashed before 1958
113 91A 91.141 22/11-49
114 91A 91.129 08/02-51 Crashed before 1963
115 91A 91.102 08/02-51 Crashed before 1958
116 91A 91.127 07/03-51
117 (1) 91A 91.120 25/04-51 Crashed during delivery flight
117 (2) 91B 91.287 11/03-54 Crashed before 1959
118 91B 91.288 11/04-54 Crashed before 1958
119 91B 91.289 11/04-54 In South-Africa 1999
120 91B 91.300 27/01-55 In South-Africa 1999
121 91B 91.301 27/01-55 In South-Africa 1999
122 91B 91.302 27/01-55
123 91B 91.303 27/01-55 Crashed before 1963
124 91B 91.304 27/01-55 In South-Africa 1999
125 91B 91.305 27/01-55 In South-Africa 1999
126 91B 91.240 06/09-57 In South-Africa 1999
127 91B 91.241 06/09-57 Crashed before 1959
128 91B 91.242 06/09-57 Crashed
129 91B 91.243 06/09-57 In South-Africa 1999
130 91B 91.244 06/09-57 Crashed before 1959
131 91B 91.245 06/09-57 In South-Africa 1999
132 91C 91.385 01/02-60
133 91C 91.386 03/02-60 Crashed before 1963
134 91C 91.387 03/02-60 In South-Africa 1999
135 91C 91.388 03/02-60 Stored Ethiopia 1996
136 91C 91.389 03/02-60
137 91C 91.390 03/02-60
138 91C 91.391 03/02-60 In South-Africa 1999
139 91C 91.392 03/02-60 In South-Africa 1999
140 91C 91.393 03/02-60 Crashed before 1963
141 91C 91.394 03/02-60 In South-Africa 1999
142 91B 91.445 20/11-63 In South-Africa 1999
143 91B 91.446 20/11-63
144 91C 91.471 08/07-66 In South-Africa 1999
145 91C 91.472 08/07-66
146 91C 91.473 08/07-66 In South-Africa 1999
147 91C 91.474 08/07-66

Operations in Congo

For one year, between the Autumn 1961 and October 1962, the IEtAF operated a flight of F-86Fs in Congo. Together with Swedish J-29 "Flying Barrels" (Tunnans) and Indian Canberras, the Ethiopean fighters constituted the UN fighter and attack forces against the Katanga forces, which - among other - operated some armed Fouga Magisters and T-6s. The UN forces made several attacs against airfields of the Katangese Air Force in Jadotville and Kolwesi, destroying a good part of the "Katanga Air Force".

The Ethiopean flight of four F-86Fs was drawn from no 5 Fighter Squadron IEtAF, and was based at the Kamina Base. The Ethiopean had been trained by USAF and the F-86Fs were also US-supplied. During the operations in Congo, one Ethiopian F-86F was lost for an unknown reason, on 14 October 1962. The other three F-86Fs returned to Ethiopia eleven days later. The final withdrawal of the Ethiopean flight was kept so secret by the UN headquarter that even the co-located Swedish flight at the base did not know about the withdrawal before the Ethiopean fighters actually took off for their return flight on the 25th October.

US-Ethiopian Cooperation

During the 1960s and early 1970s good connections between the emperor Haile Selassie and the USA and Iran were established, which time and again helped the IEtAF to acquire some modern equipment. Also, the USA established a a very important communications center in Kagnew, close to Asmara. By 1975 the IEAF boasted a strengh of 13 F-5A and two F-5B (delivered in 1972), four Canberra B.52 bombers (of which one was inoperational), and a flight each of F-86 Sabres, T-28D Trojans and T-33As. Further 17 F-5E/F Tiger IIs, 12 A-37B Dragonflies and 15 Cessna 310s were on order and many Ethiopian pilots were send to the USA on training.

This small but very good trained force was allready battle-proven during the fighting against rebels in Eritrea. Ethiopia is actually a union of nine provinces and a district of Addis Ababa, which - after the WW II - got the UN mandate to govern Eritrea. But in 1962, emperor Selassie simply annected Eritrea, because otherwise Ethiopia would lost all its ports on the Red Sea. The Eritreans wanted their own independent state, and in response created the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), which started a small-scale rebellion against the Ethiopian rule in Eritrea. It was not until 1970, that the Eritreans - now under the aegis of the new and much stronger organization, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) - started their first larger operations. Due to intensive operations of the EPLF Ethiopians were soon forced to declare an emergency in Eritrea and keep a large part of their army stationed there.

The complacency and brutality of emperor Selassie, as well as the inability of his army to fight down the rebellion in Eritrea, resulted in a coup d’etat in Addis Ababa, organized by a group of young Ethiopian officers on 12 September 1974. Emperor and his most important followers were all arrested - and executed one year later. However, new Ethiopian rulers quarreled very much against each other before in February 1977 Colonel Mengistu Haile Miriam climbed to power.

In the meantime, the EPLF became stronger and in 1975 its units started their first operations in Tigray, one of Ethiopia’s provinces along the Eritrean border. There also a rebellion of Tigrays - organized under the aegis of Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPDRF) -
was initiated, which resulted with a begin of a civil war inside Ethiopia as well. Further operations of the EPLF followed and on 13 September 1975 Eritreans attacked the US base in Kagnew, killing nine US servicemen and Ethiopian soldiers. Such attacks finally provoked the Ethiopian government into a declaration of a "total war" against Eritrea. However, the operations of the Ethiopian army during the next few years resulted in a series of Eritrean victories and a total collapse of most Ethiopian units involved. Thus Ethiopians repeatedly asked the USA for help. The then new administration of president Jimmy Carter declined to do so and accused Ethiopian military regime of repeated violations of human rights. Till August 1977, EPLF could capture Agordat and Barentu and Mengistu had to do something. Like many other rulers in Africa before him, he turned to the Soviet Union for help and got it from there immediately.

The Soviet Airlift

In the summer of 1977, the Ethiopian problems increased when the Somalis invaded the Ogaden province. Initially, only the Ethiopian Air Force - reinforced by a number of Israeli mercenaries - was able to put up an effective resistance. In order to re-conquer the lost territories, however, the Ethiopians called the Cubans for help, and Mengistu and Castro devised a plan, according to which the Cubans would deploy men and the Soviets material to Ethiopia, in order to support the regime.

In late 1977 and early 1978 Soviets organized a large air-bridge into Addis Ababa, in which not only 48 MiG-21PFMs and MiG-21MFs - and their respective equipment - but also over 200 tanks and armoured vechiles, as well as a total of some 16 Mi-24A helicopter gunships were delivered. Most of this equipment was manned by 2.000 Cuban "instructors" - actually a regular unit of the Cuban Air Force (Fuerza Aérea Revolucionaria = FAR). These reinforcements for Ethiopians not only turned the tide of the fighting against the Somalis, but were soon enough used also against the EPLF.

During the 1980s, the Ethiopian army, now actively supported by Cuban-flown aircraft and helicopters of the reorganized Ethiopian Air Force (EtAF), undertook dozens of larger and smaller offensives against Eritrean. However, most of those were only successfull in capturing different cities or opening communication lines toward the coast of the Red Sea for a limited period of time. On the contrary, the EPLF proved highly evasive and capable to hit back. Actually, the Eritreans - supported from many sources outside Ethiopia - grew stronger after every Ethiopian defeat. To the problems of the government in Addis Ababa came also a civil war against EPDRF and other opposition groups inside the country, which couldn’t be successfully crushed any more, especially as several of these - foremost the EPRDF - actively cooperated with the EPLF. The oppositional and Eritrean efforts culminated with the Operation "Theodoros", undertaken in 1989, during which not only couple of large Ethiopian army units were totally routed, but also the important base of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray province, was captured.

Only seven months after this defeat, on 30 September 1989, the Cuban regime declared its intention to pull back from the Ethiopia. The Soviets have had enough too and cancelled all further shipments of military supplies to the government in Addis Ababa. Very soon, Ethiopian army was in a total disarray. In a further series of offensives, Eritreans and Ethiopian opposition successfully cut all remaining Ethiopian corridors to the ports on the Red Sea and destroyed the remaining loyal army divisions. Even the Israeli help for the regime in Addis Ababa, which contained 100 T-55 tanks as well as spare parts and weapons for Ethiopian aircraft - supplied in early 1990 during the operation „Falacha" in exchange for the evacuation of some 30.000 Ethiopian Jews - could not change the situation of Mengistu’s regime.

Repeated offensives of rebels not only survived massive air attacks of MiG-23BNs and Mi-35s of the EtAF, but - till late 1990 - also destroyed remaining large Ethiopian ground units. On 15 May 1991 last breakthroughs were achieved by EPRDF on Dese and Kmbolcha, where the whole HQ of the Ethiopian 3rd Army was captured. Only couple of days later, on 21 May, Mengistu abandoned Addis Ababa and fled to Zimbabwe, leaving a caretaker government to face the advancing insurgents. Seven days later, on the misty morning of 28 May 1991, victorious troops of EPRDF finally entered Addis Ababa thus ending the long civil war and the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Significantly, the EtAF gave her best during the last days of Mengistu’s regime. In order to defend the remains of the army and Addis Ababa as long as possible against rebels, her aircraft flew dozens of close support missions. However, when they saw that their cause was lost, Ethiopian pilots chose to left their country together with their planes. No less that 22 different Ethiopian aircraft (one L-39ZO, three MiG-23BN, two An-12B, one Cessna L-19) and 12 helicopters (seven Mi-8, three Mi-35, two Alouette III) were flown to neighboring countries, mainly to Djibouti. Most of the bases were overruned and heavily damaged and after the war it seemed impossible that anybody could ever again organize a new Ethiopian Air force. As a matter of fact, the situation on some of the bases - for example in Addis Ababa - was similar to that on the Somali airfield in Mogadishu. Most of the remaining 36 MiG-23BNs, some 20 MiG-21MFs or any of ten An-12Bs and one An-26 were in derlict condition and only aircraft and helicopters flown outside of Ethiopia - and subsequently returned - could have been described as „flyable".

Eritrean Independence

After a UN-controlled referendum in 1991 and complete Ethiopian pull back, on 24 May 1993 Eritreans declared their state - with capital in Asmara - as independent from Ethiopia. However, from the begin on, they were confronted with immense problems as the whole infrastructure of the country was completely destroyed by 20 years of the war, there was a large number of displaced persons and refugees in the country, and the famine was almost as bad as in Ethiopia. Nevertheless, the strategically important Red Sea ports and international aid helped the recovery.

Even under such circumstances, enmities with Ethiopians remained, as the two new governments - which previously worked together in order to topple Mengistu from power and develop democracy in their respective countries - could later never find a common language regarding their long borders. Especially the Badme area was heavily disputed, where Eritreans positioned their border troops according to the agreement between Italy and Ethiopian emperor Menlik II, made in 1903, which was not recognized valid by the Ethiopians. The government in Addis Abbeba was neither happy about this fact, nor about the fact that due to the Eritrean independence Ethiopia was completely cut off the Red Sea ports, and the Eritreans were demanding considerable payments for the transit of goods to Ethiopia.

Thus, it didn’t took longer till both countries started to reorganize their armed forces in order to be ready for a new conflict. In late 1992 - in anticipation of their independence of Ethiopia - Eritreans founded their own air force (Eritrean Air Force = ErAF), and first pilots - trained on former Ethiopian SF.260TPs and L-39ZOs at Debre Zeit - were ready in mid-1993. The rest of the ErAF’s development could be described as a "text-book" example. As first, lighter aircraft were acquired, like four Finish Redigos, to improve pilot training. Then, in May 1994, four Chinese Y-12 light transports arrived to Asmara. In the hangars of the same airfield Eritreans have also found eight Ethiopian MiG-21s, nine T-33s and two Mi-8s. All were in relatively good condition, however - except for Mi-8s - they weren’t brought back into flyable status, and most seems to have been given back to Ethiopia.

Instead, in 1996 Eritreans ordered six Aermacchi MB.339FD strike fighters from Italy, with which the first combat unit of the ErAF was founded in 1997.

Due to the worsening economic situation, problems with famine and recovery from the long war, Ethiopians started to reorganize their air force only in 1995, when a contract with Israeli IAI was made, for refurbishment of 15 MiG-21MFs. Those planes should have been modernized with newer equipment, approximately to the same standard as Romanian Lancers. One year later a new contract followed, this time for refurbishment of 12 MiG-23BNs. For a time it seemed that Israelis stopped their work on both types, because of Ethiopian financial problems. Nevertheless, it seems that those could be solved to a certain degree, and the MiGs were returned in at least a refurbished condition.

Quarrels over the Border

On 28 November 1997, Eritrea introduced its new currency, Nakfa. The move resulted in a strong protest from Ethiopian government, which started a boycott of Eritrean ports. This, as well as Ethiopian pressure on Eritrean economy, caused a high inflation and problems with food supply in Eritrea, and increased tensions between the two countries. On 12 May 1998, Ethiopia accused Eritrea for occupying parts of its territory along the border in the Badme region and attacked couple of Eritrean positions with artillery. The Eritreans answered, that on 6 May their troops only took back some ground taken by Ethiopians six months before. Although only the begin of the new dispute, those first skirmishes were enough for the Ethiopian Airlines to cancel all its flights from Addis Ababa to Asmara. By 31 May 1998, further clashes between border patrols developed close to Dalgedo, not far from Alitena. The intensity of these first battles was actually low, but soon enough both sides started deploying their larger units, and a large battle developed in the area around 3 June, with both sides exchanging artillery, rocket and mortar fire.

Two days later, both the Eritrean and Ethiopian air forces went into action. At 09:45h in the morning, two MiG-23BNs of the EtAF (Lt. Mulugelta Wolde Raphael flew as #2 of this formation) appeared low over the airport of Asmara and opened fire. During their attack one Boeing 727 of Aero Zambia and two hangars were hit. Also, one person was killed and five others injured when one of the bombs hit the bus station outside of the airport. Ethiopians were confronted with a hail of Eritrean anti-aircraft fire and one of the MiGs was hit, crashing in the suburbs of Asmara. The pilot failed to eject. Only couple of hours later, the USA started an evacuation of foreign citizens from Eritrea and a US chartered Airbus A300 evacuated the first group of 190 civilians.

During the same afternoon, the Ethiopians reported two attacks of Eritrean MB.339FDs on the city of Mekelle, the capital of Ethiopian province Tigray.

Supposedly, as many as 44 civilians were killed and 135 injured as cluster bombs were used. Thus, on the morning of 6 June 1998, two Ethiopian MiG-21s repeated the attack on the airfield of Asmara and the air base of the ErAF close by. However, the Eritrean anti-aircraft fire was heavy again and one MiG ("1083") was shot down. The pilot, Col. Bazbeh Petros, one of the most experienced Ethiopian pilots, ejected and was immediately captured. the MiG-21 of Petros' wingman, Lt. Alemayehu Getachev, was also damaged, but returned safely to the base. Although Ethiopians actually wanted to destroy the small Eritrean Air Force on the ground by their air strikes, they were not successfull and this was temporary the last Ethiopian air attack, as the government in Addis Ababa agreed to wait with further similar operations till 07:00 of the 7 June, in order to give 1.500 foreign citizens more time to left Asmara. During the evening, around 19:15h, an Airbus A310 of the German Luftwaffe started towards Jeddah, and around 01:00h of the next day a RAF Hercules C.1 managed to get away. The last foreign airplanes that took off were two US C-130s, two An-24 chartered by the UN, and one Italian airliner.

The First "March on Asmara"

In the meantime, Eritrean ground troops - supported by their MB.339FDs - repulsed couple of Ethiopian attacks in the Badme and Tsorona regions. However, on 6 June one of the Macchis was shot down due to the north of Mekelle. The pilot ejected and was rescued by an Mi-8 of the ErAF. At the same time, Ethiopians also attacked Zalambessa, a small but heavy fortified city on the central part of the border. On the 9 June, Addis Ababa claimed the capture of the Zalambessa, however, one Eritrean brigade, supported by MB.339s and BM-21 rocket-launchers, counterattacked and hit the Ethiopians very hard, throwing them several kilometers back in the process. The Eritrean Macchis were deployed again on the next day during the fighting around Erde Mattios. Ethiopians claimed that local hospital was hit during air attacks and 30 people killed there. Their tries to breach Eritrean positions and march toward Asmara were stopped however, and the ErAF became even more aggressive. On the morning of the 12 June 1998, two Eritrean Mi-8 appeared in low level over the base of the Ethiopian army in Adigrat and dropped four bombs causing considerable damage. Only couple of hours later, four MB.339s rocketed several targets in the city as well. According to Ethiopian sources four people died and 30 other were injured during those attacks.

One of the six Eritrean Aermacchis, purchased in 1995. They proved their worth as training aircraft and even during the early fighting in 1998, but the Eritreans could not win the war using them alone. (Aermacchi)

However heavy the fighting was, on 14 June the USA reported that a first small agreement between Addis Ababa and Asmara could be reached, in which both sides promised not to attack any population centers. An agreement about the pull-back of Eritrean troops from areas claimed by Ethiopia, negotiated by US and Russian envoys, was rejected by Eritrea and sporadic fighting continued on at least six different points along the border. Thus the Organization of African Unity (OAU) became active and on 3 August 1997 a new agreement about a cease-fire could be reached. What actually followed was a period of relative peace in which both sides tried to strenghten their forces. Very soon there were reports about large deals made with Russian companies.

Pains of the Ethiopian Air Force

At the time of the first battles, in late Spring 1998 - both the EtAF and ErAF had immense problems. Ethiopian Air Force had an advantage of 10:1 in aircraft (and her MiG-21s and MiG-23s were certainly more suitable for air-to-air and air-to-ground operations than small Eritrean MB.339s), but, there were not enough pilots for all the available planes to go around. Actually, the EtAF was - for all purposes - non-existant between 1991 and 1995. The reason for this was the complete destruction of communist regime, including the air force, during the fighting in 1991. All the officers and pilots down to the rank of a major were imprisoned, either by the new regime (which inprisoned at least 30 pilots), or by the Eritreans, which - according to Ethiopian sources - still have not explained what happened to the following officers captured druing the fighting in 1990/91:

- Maj.Gen. Alemayehu Agonafer, a mechanical engineer and former head of the ErAF;
- Brig.Gen. Mesfin Haile, former CO of Asmara AB;
- Brig.Gen. Teshale Zewdie, a F-5- and MiG-23-pilot, former CO of the 2nd Squadron, stationed at Asmara AB;
- Brig.Gen. Haile Michael Birru, a F-5- and MiG-21-pilot, former Operations Commander and Inspector General of the EtAF;
- Col. Berhane Meskel, a Mi-24- and C-130-pilot, which worked with the Ethiopian Airlines (EAL) at the time of his capture;
- Col. Teka Makonnen, an An-12B- and C-130-pilot with the EAL;
- Col. Tigneh Woldegiorgis, a highly experienced former F-5-pilot, and lately working for EAL;
- Col. Birhanu Wubneh, F-5-pilot and MiG-21-instructor while with the EtAF, working as C-130-pilot with the EAL;
- Col. Brihane Kebede, F-5-pilot, An-12B-instructor, and also C-130-pilot with the EAL;
- Col. Gizaw Deriba, foremr CO of Asmara AB, MiG-23- and C-130-pilot;
- Col. Asmare Getahun, former F-86-, MiG-23, and An-12B-pilot, equipment commander of the EtAF, and lately C-130-pilot with the EAL;
- Col. Kassaye Kifle, a Mi-24- and An-12-pilot and instructor;
- Col. Tilahun Nebro, F-86- and MiG-21-pilot and instructor;
- Col. Admikew Mammo, Mi-24- and An-12B-pilot;
- Lt.Col. Dessalegn Mebratu, MiG-23-pilot;
- Capt. Salomon Kifle, Mi-24-pilot;
- Capt. Getachew Maru, MiG-21-pilot;
- Capt. Tarekegen (Gashu) Mekonen, a helicopter- and fighter-pilot, squadron leader and instructor;
- Lt. Kifle Wube, MiG-21-pilot.

The Ethiopian claims were not completely truth. As it seems, the bodies of six of the people from this list were returned to Ethiopia in 1998, and two officers - including Maj. Bekele Zegeye (former Mi-24- and DHC Twin Otter-pilot) and another officer the name of which we were not permitted to reveal - were released alive.

In the following years, the new government was foremost busy with the famine and recovery from the long war, and the new EtAF was only re-established in 1995, when an unknown Sudanese Colonel was put in charge of a project for a creation of a new service. New cadets - all of them former TPLF-fighters and Tigreans - were recruited to be trained as pilots. There are reports, however, that most of these cadets did not go through the rigorous physical exams, and that these were a nightmare to train. Nevertheless, at some stage the first five pilots have qualified, and were then trained by the Russians on faster jets. Supposedly, one of these five defected, while another had to be removed from the course after showing reluctance to fly.

The new EtAF therefore needed much more investment and support in order to be rebuilt and operational again. Therefore, some pilots of the former EtAF were accepted again, together with more candidates from other Ethiopian provinces. By 1998, the situation was so that the EtAF had some 20 combat pilots - including at least one women - most of which were still inexperienced. The condition of the available support bases, spare parts, and ground personnel was grevious too. Thus, the Ethiopians started to look for mercenaries around the world. Within months, they could find some very good ones.

The Russian company Rosvoorouzhenie was allready active in Ethiopia, over her representative, Col. Vladimir Nefedow and several other "instructors", most of which moved to Addis Abbeba after the fall of Southern Yemen, in 1994. Thus the Russians and Ethiopians were fast to agree several large arms deals, and from the summer of 1998, not only deliveries of new hardware, but also a group of capable former officers of the Russian Air Force arrived in Ethiopia. First news about this reached Asmara very soon and - in a vain try to prevent any such "reinforcements" for the EtAF - Eritrean president Afewerki announced, that every foreign mercenary whose airplane might go down over Eritrea will be shot immediately upon his capture by the Eritrean forces.

The warning of Afewerki was not to change the minds of some 80 Russians arrived now in Addis Ababa on board several chartered Il-76s together with crates containing new radars, weapons, communication- and supply equipment. Not only the Russians were to help: at around this tim ten refurbished MiG-23BNs were purchased from Romania as well. Thus, by late autumn 1998, the EtAF boasted some 18 MiG-23BNs, perhaps ten refurbished MiG-21 (some 30 other - non-refurbished - examples were held in reserve, and used as sources of spares), six An-12s, two DH-6s, 24 Mi-24/35s and 22 Mi-8s. A further deal with the USA, worth some $11 million, brought also four refurbished C-130Bs to Ethiopia.

MiG-21 was the main fighter-bomber of the Ethiopian Air Force between late 1977 and early 1999. The example shown here, "1127", survived the first war against Eritrea and the capture by the Eritrean forces while at Asmara, in May 1991, was returned to Ethiopia and probably refurbished in order to fight another war against the Eritreans, 1998-2000. (Tom Cooper)

But, this was still considered as not enough, especially as the availability of Russian mercenaries now made it possible for Ethiopia to acquire more modern aircraft. Thus a deal valued approximately $150 million was agreed with Moscow for sale of eight surplus Su-27S’ (including two two-seat Su-27UBs). Another deal with the Hungarian "Danubian Aircraft Company", saw a delivery of four Mi-8Ts (c/ns 10451, 10452, 10453, 10454, formerly owned by the Iraqi Air Force, and impounded at Tokol airfield near Budapest since 1991) with the help of an Antonov An-124, in October 1997 (how urgent such deliveries were expected by the EtAF, shows the fact that during the first days after their arrival in Ethiopia, one of the Mi-8s logged no less but 30 flight hours!). Also, additional Mi-24 helicopters, more ammunition and ground navigation equipment were purchased. Most of the new items were flown to Addis Ababa between 10 and 23 December 1998 with Il-76s and An-124s of different smaller Russian companies. The first Su-27 - dismantled at Krasnodar Air Base - departed aboard an Antonow An-22 on 15 December. Due to the new Russian engagement in Ethiopia, the EtAF - now under command of former Russian Gen. Yanakow - was underway to became a force to be recknocked with again. How good the cooperation between Ethiopia and Russia functioned was shown at its best on 6 January 1999, when one Su-27US, flown by Russian Col. Vyacheslaw Myzin, crashed during a demonstration flight for VIPs over Debre Zeit. Myzin ejected safely, but his Ethiopian pupil - Flt.Lt. Abaniyeh - was killed: Within only a few days the Russian company Promexport replaced the lost plane by dispatching a new one (also an ex-Russian Air Force example) to Ethiopia (this was already a second fatal accident in the EtAF within two months, as in November 1998 an EtAF L-39 was shot down in error by air defense of Mekele, with both pilots - Ethiopian Flt.Lt. Endegena Tadesse and a Russian instructor - being killed; Tadesse was burried at Debre Zeit, on 14 November 1998).

By the time, there were already 300 Russian officers and instructors in Ethiopia (all of which were contracted via the Russian Ministry of Defense), and the whole EtAF was actually under the command by Russian Gen. Yanakow Yoakim Ivanovich. According to Eritreans, the other important Russian officers in Ethiopia at the time were:
- Belabrov N. P., Skorodimov S., Petrov Vladimir, Kiyaev Sergeiy, Sherstynov Alexander, Saigarev Farid, Ivanov Vitaliy, Magarnedov Andreiy, Kokhanovskiy V., Valeev N., Gudyma Oleg, Golev Nikolaiy, Lavrovsky S. I., Krychkov Vladislav, Bashlykov Genady Petrovich, Nikolaevich Shnary Alexander, Kozlov Yuri, Garbachev Vladimir Georgeyevich, Bzhdanenko Alekh, Kuziashev Genadiy, and Lisenko Viktor Mikhailovich.

Eritrean Problems

The Eritreans had completely different problems. Actually, financially they could barely follow the Ethiopian pace in this arms race. But, they couldn’t afford to stay behind. Thus, in the summer of 1998 eight MiG-29As and two MiG-29UBs were purchased in Russia at a cost of approximately $25 million each! First of new Eritrean fighters has been seen on 14 December 1998 in the flight near Asmara. Even better friends the Eritreans found in the Ukraine and during the summer of 1998 a kind of a small air bridge was also organized between Kiev and Asmara. One of the planes that delivered new equipment and arms to Eritrea, an Il-76MD (UR-UCI), crashed close to Asmara on 17 July 1998.

The small fleet of Eritrean MiG-29s was to be used in a very serious effort to establish the air superiority over the battlefield, obviously initiated by the Ukrainian instructors in Eritrea. The Russian - and later Ethiiopian - pilots would not left themselves be surprised by the aggressive appearance of Eritrean MiG-29s, and in the following air battles through 1999 and 2000 Eritrean MiG-29s suffered considerable losses. Four replacements were purchased ever since. (Tom Cooper)

This new relationship was to a large degree possible because of a quarrel between the Russians and Ukrainians working for the Rosvoorouzhenie, which resulted with the Russians working for Ethiopia, and the Ukrainians doing their best for the Eritreans. Nefedow, for example, changed the sides and started working for Eritreans. He was not only instrumental in brokering the purchase of MiG-29s, but also of four armed Mi-17s from Kazan helicopters. At the same time, a group of Eritrean pilots went through a kind of crash course in the Ukraine, in order to learn how to fly and use new MiGs and Mils.

New Battles

Reinforcements that both air forces acquired came just in the last moment before the next round of heavy clashes broke out, in early February 1999. This time, Ethiopians tried again to break through Eritrean positions at Zalambessa without success. Nevertheless, the EtAF - and its Russian mercenaries - could now finally show the worth of all the money spent for them.

On 5 February 1999 two Eritrean MB.339FDs attacked a fuel depot in Adigrat, some 48 kilometers inside the Ethiopian border, important for the supply of Ethiopian army with fuel. One day later, a new series of border skirmishes in the Badme area broke out and Ethiopia was forced to send its helicopter gunships over the front. On the morning of the 8 February, Ethiopian army started its new offensive against Eritrean positions at Alitena, Tsorona and Zalambessa, claiming some smaller successes, but again without any break through. Both sides paid a very heavy price, however, as many soldiers died in artillery exchanges and air attacks. After further operations of Ethiopian helicopter gunships, Eritreans started to build up their air defences over the front, and on the morning of 14 February 1999 claimed one of two Ethiopian Mi-24 that attacked the front line close to Burre, some 72km south of Aseb. Both crew members were killed. Ethiopia confirmed the loss but denied the Eritrean claim for a shooting down of a second Mi-24 on 24 February 1999. Ethiopians, whose Russian mercenaries and own fighter pilots were still in training for the forthcoming operation, pressed their old An-12Bs in service as bombers, and couple of night attacks, undertaken by those planes, were reported as flown against the Eritrean positions in the hills around Badme.

Two days later, on 26 February 1999, Ethiopian fighters finally started their operations again. That morning two weaves of two MiG-23BNs each bombed the Eritrean logistical support center at Harsele, while other planes bombed the water supply installations in the port of Assab and the airfield nearby. All those attacks were repeated on 21 and 23 February as well, even during the negotiations to establish a peaceful settlement that took place in both capitals, with the support of Organization for African Unity (OAU) and the EU. It became clear, that Eritrean Air Force had to deploy its new fighters in order to stop the newest offensive of the EtAF. The air warfare between Ethiopia and Eritrea was thus short of its highest point.

Sukhoi Contra MiG

With the re-appearance of the EtAF fighters over the battlefield, it became clear to the Eritreans and their Ukrainian instructors, that they would have to fight down the newly-arrived Ethiopian Su-27s, or the ErAF would not be able to effectively support the war effort. Therefore, on the morning of 25 February four MiG-29s were sent to intercept two Su-27s which were patrolling along the front-lines at Badme. Both Sukhois, flown by Russian pilots, detected the appearance of their opponents in time and attempted to disengage, when - all of a sudden - they came under an attack by several R-27/AA-10 missiles. None of the weapons fired by the Eritreans hit, but after evading them, the Russians decided to turn back and fight. The lead acquired the enemy and fired what was reported as a "salvo" of R-27s, targeting one MiG-29 after the other. However, all the missiles missed and the only result was that the Eritreans were forced to break their attack - only to be pounced by the faster Su-27s. The result of following dog-fight was one Eritrean MiG-29 shot down, probably by an R-73/AA-11 IR-homing, short range air-to-air missile. The fate of the pilot, rumoured to have been the commander of the Eritrean Air Force, was not reported by either side.

Only 24 hours later, a new - but highly interesting - engagement developed over the Badme area. This time, a lonesome Su-27S, flown by female pilot Capt. Aster Tolossa, was escorting several MiG-21s on a strike mission, when a single aircraft was detected, closing from the direction of Asmara. Capt. Tolossa turned to intercept and identified the target as an - apparently unarmed - Eritrean MiG-29UB. After some maneuvering, during which there was some kind of communications exchange between the crew of the MiG and the Sukhoi, the Ethiopian was high at enemy's 6 o'clock, when she realized that the pilot of the aircraft in front of her was her former instructor. Capt. Tolossa immediately warned him that she was about to shot him down, and requested the Eritrean to land at Debre Zeit. He disobeyed, and Tolossa pulled the trigger. Exactly which weapon was used this time remains unknown, but it is highly likely that the Ethiopian used at least two air-to-air missiles, both of which were evaded, and then finished the target with 30mm gunfire. The Eritrean pilot was certainly experienced enough to evade two missiles, and he also knew who and where was the enemy. While it remains unknown if anybody ejected from that MiG-29UB, it is certain that Capt. Tolossa was given a hero's wellcome back at her base; with right, then she was the first female fighter-pilot to show down an enemy fighter-jet in the history of air warfare.

The Eritreans have thus lost one more of their precious MiG-29s in an effort to deny the air superiority to the EtAF. Before they could give it another try, however, the Ethiopians concentrated enough armour and artillery on the ground in order to achieve a small breakthrough at this part of the front. Eritreans managed to stop the enemy short behind their former lines, but their government immediately agreed to accept the international peace proposals. Nevertheless, Ethiopians continued with probing attacks, preparing their forces for a „final" offensive.

There were many skirmishes during the next months and on 18 March 1999 the Eritreans claimed their first large success, albeit not by using their weapons. On that day a single EtAF Mi-35, flown by two Russian mercenaries and transporting a group of eight Tigrian militiamen (not regular Ethiopian Army troops), was underway along the Mereb-Setit front, near Badme, when the pilot got lost because the Tigreans could obviously not read the map properly. After some time the pilot decided to land and ask the troops nearby for the way. This was a very dangerous mistake, as he landed behind the Eritrean lines. The helicopter, the crew and eight militamen were all immediately captured by the Eritreans. It remains unknown what happened to the two Russians subsequently; as mentioned, the Eritrean President promised to behead any captured Russian mercenary. The captured Mi-35 was subsequently serviced by the Ukrainians at Asmara and pressed into service with the ErAF; it was last seen in May 2000, still intact.

On 19 March 1999 the Eritreans captured this Ethiopian Mi-35 ("2108") when it landed behind their lines due to pilot desorientation. The crew should have been Russian, and it remains unknown what happened to them. (Visafric)

Couple of days later, a further clash between Ethiopian Su-27S' and Eritrean MiG-29s was reported, in which supposedly two MiGs were shot down. Again no better details are known about this air battle, except that quite a number of air-to-air missiles were fired without any hits. Almost two months later, on 21 May 1999, Eritrean forces claimed an Ethiopian MiG-23BN as shot down over Badme, however, Ethiopia denied the claim, which couldn’t be independently confirmed. The losses of the EtAF were certainly pretty bad by this time: there were rumors of up eight fighter aircraft and three helicopters shot down so far during the engagements with Eritreans. Some reports indicated that most of Ethiopian aircraft claimed shot down by the Eritreans were actually lost to technical problems, or were flown by the poorly trained Tigreans. Indeed, there are indications that at the time the EtAF was engaged with intensive trainig of its pilots and personnel, flying many training sorties from Bahir Dar and Mekelle, before moving most of its combat aircraft to Gambela. For example, on 20 April 1999, one EtAF MiG-21 collided with an electricity pole some 17km north of Arba Minch, and crashed, the remnants of the plane coming down in the residential areas, killing eight and injuring 14.

Nevertheless, the operations over the Mereb-Setit front were continued, and on 24 March - as well as on 11 June 1999 - the Eritreans claimed to have shot down more Mi-35s. On 13 and 14 June, they also claimed two EtAF MiG-23BNs as shot down as well.

Ethiopian "Left-Hook"

On the Eritrean side, Nefedow was underway to Moscow with a pledge for help - and more MiG-29s! However, as Russians were already too deep involved in Ethiopia and Eritrean request was rejected. Thus, Nefedow had to search for new equipment in Georgia and Moldova, where supposed deals for Su-25s combat aircraft and Mi-8 helicopters were made. Contrary to Eritreans, Ethiopians could acquire further planes, like some eight Su-25s, and prepare them for the forthcoming onslaught on Eritrea. Namely, even after experiencing extreme casualties during the fighting around Badme, in early 1999, Ethiopians never stopped announcing their "final" great offensive, which should bring them back territories right to the coast of the Red Sea. Even as a new round of Algerian-brokered peace talks was underway, Ethiopians continued their preparations by purchasing more heavy weapons and concentrating their ground troops, tanks and artillery on the front between Badme and Adigrat. The Eritreans did their best to prepare for defense, and were right in doing so: when on the 4 of May 2000 the peace talks failed because of technicalities of implementing a peace accord, Ethiopian army started its latest attacks.

During the renewed fighting around Barentu Ethiopian forces attacked their enemies with all the firepower at hand. Not only MiG-21s, MiG-23s and Mi-35s were used, but also newly acquired Su-25, one of which was claimed as shot down by Eritreans on 15 May 2000. On the same day the EtAF certainly lost another Mi-35 (reported as "2110"), which was flown by pilot called Eshetu and underway to attack a water tank the EtAF was trying to hit for quite some time without success, when it stumbled over a newly-positioned Eritrean ZSU-23. The helicopter was several times hit in the engine area while attacking the target for second times with 250kg bombs. Usually, the Eritreans did not consider Ethiopian pilots as very bold, but in this case it was reported the pilot Eshetu, frustrated by previous own and failures of his comerades to hit this target, came very low in order to put two 250kg bombs at the tower, which was then indeed destroyed. Eritrean reports about this engagement indicate that they used their old tactics from the 1980s: they would monitor the operations of Ethiopian helicopers and aircraft very carefully, and then move their flaks somewhere along the usual routes. This allowed them to fire at the first aircraft or helicopet which appeared in the morning. This tactics caused several losses to the EtAF already before, and was now to prove once again the importance of pilots constantly changing their ingress-, egress- and patrol-routes.

Highly interesting were also reports which appeared at this time that during the fighting in those days, Ethiopians deployed two Ka-50 helicopter gunships, supposedly recently delivered to them by Russia and also flown by Russian mercenaries. According to some unconfirmed reports, both Ka-50s used only unguided rockets and their guns so far. Indeed, there were some traces - including photographs published in the African press - that the Ethiopian helicopter attacks were highly successfull in these days, and that some guided anti-tank missiles were used by EtAF in at least one instance against one Eritrean supply column close behind the front. However, all the reports about the delivery of Ka-50s proved completely wrong: the EtAF flew no other combat helicopters but Mi-35s.

On 16 May 2000 Eritrean Air Force flew couple of counterattacks against the Ethiopian ground force, but it seems that the last two incoming MiG-29s were intercepted by EtAF’s Su-27s. This was a situation which the Eritreans and the Ukrainians wanted to prevent when they started the fight for battlefield air superiority a year earlier, by challenging Ethiopian Su-27s: they wanted to prevent a situation in which ErAF aircraft would not be able to attack Ethiopian troops on the ground because of the presence of Ethiopian interceptors in the air. Such concerns proved right as during this battle one MiG-29 was immediately shot down. Shortly after, another MiG-29 crash-landed at Asmara, obviously after being damaged by R-27 during another engagement with Ethiopian Su-27S'. The reports about this combat indicate, that both MiG-29s were downed by the same Ethiopian pilot, which was one of a very small number of officers from the former communist EtAF, and before that usually abused by the former TPLF and EPLF cadres. Apparently, he fired one or two R-73s to down the first MiG-29 in some sort of a "dogfight", and then fired at least one R-27 at the second MiG: the last missile proximity-fuzed near the target, causing extensive damage, but the Eritrean pilot still managed to nurse his plane back to Asmara, before crashing on landing.

Eritrean MiG-29 on alert at the Asmara AB, in 1999. Note the R-73 air-to-air missiles underneath the outside underwing pylons. (via Tom Cooper)

As a response on the renewed activity of the ErAF, on 19 May Ethiopian MiG-23BNs bombed the Sawa military training center and airfield. This operation stunned observers, because the installations at Sawa were considered as very good defended and fortified. However, all Ethiopian aircraft returned safely to their bases. In fact, instead of being shot down by Eritrean SA-6 SAMs, Ethiopian aircraft reportedly destroyed one site of those missiles, close to Mendefera, on 20 May 2000. Nevertheless, Eritrea - whose forces were now under heavy pressure along the whole central part of the front - claimed downing of no less than four Ethiopian MiG-23s on 24 of May. Two further EtAF jets were also claimed as shot down during a bombing of Adi Keyib.

In fact, Eritreans were now on the verge of becoming victims to their own stiff and stubborn, but static, defence. Ethiopians attacked along a very broad front, without revealing their actual target: cutting off of all Eritrean forces at Zalambessa. Thus heavy fighting was reported near Senafe, down to Mereb river valley, south of Tserona and toward Adi Quala, where Eritreans managed to recover a tactically important hill in hand-to-hand fighting. Both sides intensively used armour, artillery and rocket launchers during those battles causing a considerable surprise for the observers in the West. However, the EtAF stopped any operations over the front and operated with its fighters only over Asmara.

On 28 May 2000, Ethiopians escalated the war further by an attack of two MiG-23BNs against the newly built power-plant close to Hirgigo, near Massawa, sponsored by Mid-East donors and Italy. On the same day, during decisive battles in the mountains, Ethiopians broke Eritrean lines and captured Zalambessa. The city was completelly destroyed during the fighting. Even more threatening for Eritrea was the "left hook" made by Ethiopian units, which broke through the front close to Badme, turned to the south before reaching Barentu, and marched toward Areza! If those troops could advance to Dekamhare, almost all Eritrean forces at the central front would be cut off.

Drive towards Aseb

The next escalation was achieved by Ethiopian strike against Asmara on 29 May 2000. At midday, four MiG-23BNs appeared over the Asmara’s international airport and attacked with rockets. The small control tower was hit and burned out. In their second turn, MiGs split their formation in two pairs: the first two attacked the military side of the airfield and tried to hit parked Eritrean aircraft and helicopters with bombs. However, they missed and at least one Eritrean MiG-29UB as well as one Mi-35 were not damaged even by bombs that fell relatively close. Two other MiG-23BNs bombed military buildings and set couple of them on fire. At least one Eritrean MiG-29A started immediately after the attack and gave Ethiopians a chase, but couldn’t reach them any more. During the evening fighters of the ErAF continued their patrols over Asmara but, after this attack, the remaining commercial airlines flying to the capital of Eritrea have suspended their service as a precaution.

A scene moments after the Ethiopian strike by four EtAF MiG-23BNs against the Asmara AB, on 29 May 2000. Neither the MiG-29UB nor the Mi-35 (the example captured a year before) were damaged despite a number of bombs falling around them, but several other buildings on the airfield - including the control tower - were heavily hit and left afire. (AP)

During the following days heavy battles raged along the front with Eritrean counteroffensive at Barentu and Zalambessa and bombing of the port of Assab by two Ethiopian MiG-23s on 2 June 2000. However, in a flagrant violation of their own claims about a pull-back from all territories captured so far, on the morning of the 3 June 2000, Ethiopian troops started a new offensive at the front close to Burre, broke through and started operations against the second Eritrean defence line - only some 37 kilometers form the Assab. At the same time mediators from the OAU, the EU and Libya went to the region and tried to arrange a ceasefire. Their efforts became successfull only two weeks later, after a new small Eritrean offensive, in which the city of Tessena could be liberated. On Saturday, 18 June 2000, under heavy pressure from outside, Ethiopia and Eritrea agreed immediate ceasefire. However, a comprehensive peace is still very far from being achieved, as this agreement falls far short of a full settlement and depends heavily of the arrival of some 5.000 UN Peacekeepers, which should arrive in the are during the nest two or three months. While new clashes on the ground and in the air could easily break out before the Peacekeepers arrive, the UN should have a considerably easier task in separating Ethiopian and Eritrean ground forces from each other, because both sides deployed good organized and trained armies during the fighting, which so far claimed lifes of some 100.000 soldiers and displaced almost a third of Eritrean population.


Couple of events that happened in this two years long bloodshed are very interesting for all observers. Firstly, while there are still many observers in the West, which refuse to believe that two of the poorest African countries could "put up such a war" - and use such „high-tech" equipment like Su-27s, MiG-29s, Mi-35s, tanks, artillery and rocket launchers in large numbers and in tactically and strategically feasible manners - the fact remains that under a closer look the operations of both sides made very much sense. Consequently, both the Ethiopians and the Eritreans have carefully planned and executed their moves, even if not everything functioned.

As second, even if both sides suffered grevious losses during the fighting (according to some reports, possibly as many as 150.000 people allready lost their lives during the fighting), some tactical decisions (supposedly "produced" by foreign "instructors"), like the Ethiopian „left-hook" at Barentu, with the closely-following push towards Aseb - were very interesting

Very interesting were also clashes between Ethiopian Su-27S' and Eritrean MiG-29s. Besides taking out four Eritrean MiG-29s - plus writting another off due to damage received from an air-to-air missile - Ethiopian Su-27s flew many strike missions against the Eritrean ground forces, using unguided rockets and "dumb" bombs, and also escorted almost all MiG-23 deep strikes into Eritrea. Interesting is also, that most - if not all - Eritrean MiG-29s were shot down in close-quarters turning dogfights, where MiGs were supposed to have some advantages over larger and heavier Sukhois. Finally - except one - all the air-to-air kills were reportedly scored by R-73, even if quite a few (up to 24) R-27s were fired, pointing to some possible problems with R-27s, which is otherwise highly prised by quite a few air forces around the world! Supposedly, there should be no significant differences between early and new - or domestic and export - versions of R-27s, however, it seems, that this type so far has a worst combat record than even US Vietnam-era AIM-7Es or AIM-7Fs! This was certainly no good news for the Russians, which were keen to try out their new mounts and weapons under conditions of conventional warfare, and against a well organized enemy.

Finally, already in 2000, there was a question about the capability of both air forces to keep their aircraft up and flyable once their Russian and Ukrainian instructors would leave, while also the actual reasons behind the massive Russian support for Ethiopia were completely unclear.

By now, it is clear that the Russian interests were foremost of commercial nature. The subsequent commercial successes of the Su-27s and other Russian-built equipment on international markets, as well as the pull-bakc of almost all instructors after approximately 12 months in Ethiopia, seem to confirm this. Once most of the Russians have left, however, the situation of the EtAF deotriated again. Newest reports indicate that hardly four Su-27s are operational on average. The efforts to improve the situation with the help of the newly established "Ethiopian Aircraft industries" works, built by the Russians at Debre Zeit in 1999, and now supposedly supported even by the Israelis, should not have brought any useful results so far. Nevertheless, at least theoretically, the Ethiopians are left in a slightly better situation than Angolans or the government of Sierra Leone, where the regular forces almost broke down after their foreign instructors have left.

Indeed, while the Eritreans are still not especially interested in revealing more about their experiences from this war, the Ethiopians are very proud about the achievements of their deadly Su-27s. Nevertheless, the Eritreans have continued their relations to the Ukraine, but also established better connection to Moscow. While only a small cadre of the Ukrainians remained there after the war, in summer 2001 the EtAF purchased four new MiG-29s from Russia, in order to replace the losses from the war with Ethiopia and bring their fighter squadron back to strength.

Meanwhile, in Mekelle, there is a bar owned by a woman who named it "Bar SU", as a remembrance on planes that "beat the Eritreans". A security guard at the airport in the same city boasts with a key-ring from which an odd metal shape dangles: supposedly a part of an Eritrean MiG-29 wreck, that was shot down by Ethiopian Su-27.

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