Courtesy Reuters

Rumblings Along the Red Sea: The Eritrean Question

Twelve hundred miles south of Suez a struggle to control the farther entrance to the Red Sea is well underway. Though naturally overshadowed by the Arab-Israeli conflict to which it is not unrelated, the contest to the south involves substantial issues for great and small powers alike, who look to the future of the African Horn and the Red Sea basin. More than this, the problem of Eritrea, together with the related question of French Djibouti's future, is an intriguing one which, for all its complexities, recorded in past United Nations resolutions and every kind of East-West, North-South compromise, still may prove soluble short of major war. For the armed struggle along the Red Sea's southern rim is thus far a conflict of subdued violence and muted, if bizarre, ramifications.

The seat of the unfolding drama is Eritrea itself, a coastal strip running seven hundred miles from Sudan in the north to French Djibouti in the south. Over the last century and a half it has been alternately under Turkish suzerainty, an Egyptian, Sudanese and Abyssinian fiefdom, an Italian colony, a British military-administered territory, a U.N.-sponsored semi-autonomous federated state and, since 1962, a province of Ethiopia. From 1941 to the present Eritrea has known four separate sets of rulers, and therein lies a good deal of the problem. Today a fifth and latest claimant for power, the Syrian-based "Eritrean Liberation Front," has entered the lists. The Front, with some 1,500 armed guerrillas (it claims 10,000) and the propaganda facilities of distant Radio Damascus, says it is fighting for an independent Eritrea and declaims against the "imperialist oppression" of Ethiopia's venerable 78-year-old Emperor Haile Selassie I. More to the point, it boasts of support from China, Cuba and most of the "fraternal Arab states" which surround Ethiopia. During 1969 the Front carried out bomb attacks on Ethiopian commercial jets at Frankfurt and Karachi, sabotaged the main power plant of Asmara, Eritrea's capital, and hit the Franco-Ethiopian Railway terminus at Djibouti. On a road trip to

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