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The Somali


Figure 11. The Ogaden War, 1977-78

The most significant antigovernment force operating in the Ogaden was the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF; see Other Movements and Fronts, ch. 4). WSLF guerrillas first engaged Ethiopian troops in combat in 1975, systematically attacking police posts and army garrisons from base camps across the border in Somalia. In June 1977, the WSLF, supported by the Somali government and joined by Somali National Army (SNA) "volunteers," succeeded in cutting the railroad bridges between Addis Ababa and Djibouti, which carried about a third of Ethiopia's external trade, and in establishing control over 60 percent of the Ogaden. At that time, the WSLF numbered about 6,000 troops. As the tempo of the conflict increased, the WSLF relied more and more on Somalia's armored and artillery capabilities.

In July 1977, mechanized units of the SNA army invaded Ethiopia in a preemptive thrust at Harer--the Ogaden region's military command center--that was intended to decide the Ogaden issue before promised Soviet military equipment arrived in Ethiopia (see fig. 11). Jijiga fell to Somali forces in September, when the Ethiopian mechanized unit defending it mutinied and fled in panic. The Somali forces then focused their efforts on the strategic Marda (also known as Karamarda) Pass, carrying the attack into the unfamiliar highlands to block Ethiopian reinforcements coming into Harerge. The move diverted Ethiopian forces from the main offensive aimed at Harer and Dire Dawa, site of the air base from which strikes were flown against targets inside Somalia.

After weeks of being bogged down by bad weather, in January 1978 the SNA pressed a three-pronged attack on Harer, where nearly 50,000 Ethiopian troops had regrouped, backed by Soviet-supplied heavy artillery and reinforced by 10,000 Cuban troops from units hurriedly flown in from Angola. Early in February 1978, the Ethiopians launched a two-stage counterattack toward Jijiga that had been planned and directed by Soviet advisers and backed by Cuban troops. Moving east and south from Dire Dawa, an Ethiopian column crossed the highlands between Jijiga and the Somali border, bypassing Somali troops dug in around the Marda Pass. In the second offensive strike, joined by Cuban troops, the Ethiopian army trapped the Somali forces around Jijiga between helicopter-borne tanks that had landed to their rear and a determined frontal assault from Harer. On March 5, the Ethiopians retook Jijiga after two days of fierce fighting in which they defeated four Somali brigades and killed 3,000 Somali troops. Within a week, the Ethiopian army had reestablished control over all the region's major towns. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian air force's F-5 fighters had won air superiority in engagements against Soviet-made Somali jets. On March 9, Siad Barre ended the undeclared war by announcing that he had recalled all SNA troops from the Ogaden. The introduction of Soviet equipment and 17,000 Cuban troops had decisively altered the balance of power in the Horn of Africa.

After the withdrawal of the Somali regulars, the WSLF reverted to classic guerrilla tactics against the Ethiopian army, whose soldiers they characterized as black colonialist troops. Western journalists visiting the region in early 1980 confirmed that the WSLF once again controlled the countryside and many of the main roads. Also, "volunteers," believed by many to have been troops of the SNA, reportedly had rejoined the WSLF. Renewed fighting occurred in June and July 1980, when, according to an official spokesman in Addis Ababa, Ethiopian troops repelled an incursion by a mechanized Somali force. Meanwhile, Ethiopia had started training and equipping the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF) and later the Somali National Movement (SNM), both of which began launching raids inside Somalia against the Siad Barre regime. The renewed conflict forced Mogadishu to declare a state of emergency in October 1980.

Another major incident occurred on June 30, 1983, when Ethiopian troops staged a two-pronged operation against Somalia. Part of the invading Ethiopian force intended to capture high ground in Hiiraan Region near Feerfeer on the Ethiopia--Somalia frontier. However, the SNA garrison at Beledweyne repulsed the Ethiopian attack. Farther north, an Ethiopian armored column overran a Somali settlement in Galguduud Region. On July 17, Ethiopian warplanes bombed and strafed the airstrip and other parts of Galcaio, the capital of Mudug Region. Ethiopian armored columns also crossed the border to the north and west of Galcaio and occupied the village of Galdogob. Until late 1983, there were numerous clashes between Ethiopian and Somali units, especially near Balumbale and in the northwest around Hargeysa. However, the Somali forces were unable to dislodge the Ethiopians from Balumbale and Galdogob.

For two more years, Ethiopian-Somali relations remained tense. In July 1985, Mengistu and Siad Barre held discussions at the OAU summit in Addis Ababa in order to lay the groundwork for a peaceful resolution of the Ogaden problem. Although Ethiopian and Somali officials held several more meetings, they were unable to reach a settlement. In mid-January 1986, a meeting between Mengistu and Siad Barre in Djibouti resulted in a "general understanding" on the Ogaden issue. This "understanding" was undermined on February 12, 1987, when Ethiopia launched ground and air raids on areas of western Somalia three weeks after protests and mass arrests cut off Hargeysa from the rest of the country. Although an agreement to end hostilities was signed in April 1988, the dispute remained unresolved because of Addis Ababa's continued support of the SNM. After the downfall of the Siad Barre regime in January 1991, tens of thousands of Somali refugees fled to the Ogaden. This exodus only added to eastern Ethiopia's increasing instability during the final months of the Mengistu regime.

Data as of 1991

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