ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Two Eritrean rebel groups said on Thursday they had killed 17 government soldiers in a dawn raid on a military base in the south of the Red Sea state.
The Eritrean Salvation Front (ESF) and the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organisation (RSADO), who are based in neighbouring Ethiopia, said their fighters launched the attack in Enda Haji near the town of Tsorono on the border with Ethiopia.
There was no immediate comment from the Eritrean government but authorities in Asmara often dismiss Ethiopia-based opponents as “puppets” acting under the orders of its long-time enemy.
The rebels also said they had taken two prisoners.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said in April his government would begin supporting Eritrean rebels in a bid to oust the administration of President Isaias Afewerki.
Tsorona was the scene of a fierce battle between Eritrea and Ethiopia during a 1998-2000 border war that killed about 70,000 people. An independent border commission in 2002 awarded the flashpoint town of Badme to Eritrea but Ethiopia still occupies the territory.
“We held the area until 11 a.m. before we returned back to our positions,” RSADO spokesman Yasin Mohamed told Reuters.
“Our fighters captured two soldiers, they are in our possession now. The army suffered 17 losses and five injured.”
Yasin said the rebels also suffered casualties in the attack but he gave no further details.
The two rebel groups said in October early-morning attacks in southern Eritrea’s Kermed, Adi Metras, Ingra Abo, Adi Tela’a and Meshal Akran killed 12 soldiers and wounded 15.
The claims are impossible to verify because there is no independent media in secretive Eritrea and it rarely grants visas to foreign journalists.
The Eritrean government has in recent months come under growing pressure from its neighbours who see it as a destabilising influence.
Kenya has accused it of flying in weapons for al Shabaab, an insurgent group linked to al Qaeda that has been fighting the Western-backed Somali government since 2007, and which is now also battling Kenyan forces.
Eritrea on Wednesday said the war in Somalia could only be solved through talks and that military action would fail.
Though capable of staging hit-and-run attacks, analysts say the Eritrean rebels are incapable of delivering a significant blow to President Isaias Afewerki’s 20-year stay in power due to differences among members of the opposition coalition.