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'The Ethiopians have always been tough, mean'


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

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LONDON (AFP) - Ethiopian forces have waged two major conventional wars: eventually repelling a invasion Somalia launched in 1977; and fighting Eritrea to a stalemate in 1998-2000, according to experts at Jane's publishing group.

Ethiopian forces have also long waged counter-insurgency campaigns against various guerrilla groups at home.

They honed both conventional and guerrilla tactics during the civil war that toppled Ethiopian former military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.

"They may be a little ramshackle in some aspects of their training, but the Ethiopians have always been tough, mean fighters and they've got a lot of experience in the army,"

Jane's World Armies and the International Institute of Strategic Studies estimate the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) at between 150 000 to 180 000 personnel, backed by solid but mainly old Soviet-era ground and air power.

However, Heitman, who spoke by telephone from South Africa, said many of these troops are either tied down on the border with Eritrea or in waging counter-insurgency campaigns at home.

This means that Ethiopia would have to rely on its substantial airlift capability - it has around a dozen Mi-17 troop transport helicopters - to deploy a relatively small force over sprawling Somali territory, Heitman said.

The ENDF has other advantages in air power.

With half a dozen Sukhoi-27 bombers, he said, it could hit Somali airports and other targets to prevent the Islamist forces from bringing in supplies from abroad.

It also has 25 old MiG 21 and around a dozen MiG 23 ground attack planes as well as Mi24 attack helicopters which would boost Ethiopian ground advances, he said. However, it is not clear how many are in service, though.

"The Islamists will not have much beyond shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles... but you can fly above that," Heitman said.

Where the ENDF might lose its edge over the Somalis is when it comes to deploying appropriate vehicles, he said. Its main battle tanks are 170 old T-55s and 50 T-62s, with another 50 more recent T-72s acquired from Yemen, but tracked vehicles and artillery will be of little use in such a war and it is short of troop transports.

Any war would resemble more the campaigns waged by US and Nato forces in Afghanistan than the US-led war in Iraq, Heitman said.

In an article last month, Jane's World Armies said it believed that the United States has influenced tactics of certain elite Ethiopian units through its "counter-terrorism" program.

However, it was not immediately clear how deeply involved Washington was in the current showdown between Ethiopia and the Islamists.

Though Heitman expected the Ethiopians to defeat the Somali militias, he warned that Ethiopia might be bogged down in Somalia for years if no credible governing and military forces fill the void.

Source: AFP, Dec 20, 2006



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