ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- It is Africa's longest war, the curse of Ethiopia, with tens of thousands dead and wounded and a quarter of a million homeless.
Now the military government of Socialist Ethiopia has launched a major campaign to finish the Eritrean secessionist movement once and for all after 21 years of war. The operation is called 'Red Star.'
The government likes to call it a 'multi-faceted pacification and development campaign.' Most diplomats say the 'pacification program' means all-out war.
Officials keep quiet about the campaign launched in late 1981. Mention of Operation Red Star draws cold stares.
But diplomats say it is the make-or-break point for Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam's 7-year-old government. All his eggs are in one basket, and the basket is fragile.
Eritrean secessionist movements have been active since 1961, striving to win independence for the rich province that provides a gateway to the Red Sea and Ethiopia's two major ports. Emperor Haile Selassie failed repeatedly to end the conflict and since the 1974 revolution at least six military campaigns also have failed. This time, however, things could be different.
The Eritreans, mostly Moslem with an Arab heritage, maintain they have always been separate from the rest of Ethiopia. Ethiopians claim a right to the land dating back to the 10th century.
Without Eritrea, Ethiopia is cut off from the sea. The 530 miles of Eritrean coastline is a good reason to fight a war, diplomats said.
The province produces 27 percent of Ethiopia's manufactured goods and houses about 60 percent of its industry. Thus one of the world's poorest countries is fighting a war of economic survival.
Operation Red Star is no minor military exercise. More than half the Ethiopian army, considered one of Africa's largest, is said to be involved.
The campaign's main thrust is against the northern town of Nakfa, 80 miles rom the Sudan border. There the main Eritrean People's Liberation Front army, numbering about 12,000 men, has dug in.
'The Ethiopians could win in the next couple of months,' one diplomat said. 'If they do not score a total military victory, they could at least cripple the EPLF for years to come.
'The Ethiopians have never been able to concentrate on Eritrea because of the Ogaden war,' he said. 'But now that that is over, all their attention has been centered on the north. It could make the difference this time.'
Backing the Ethiopian thrust are Libya, South Yemen and the Soviet Union. There are 1,200 Soviet military advisers in Eritrea. Libya flies supply missions. South Yemen provides combat pilots.
Ironically, the Eritreans have been trained by Cubans and Soviets and are armed with Soviet weaponry, given them before Ethiopia kicked out the United States and courted the Soviet Union.
Now both sides are equipped with guns from the same supplier and have polished tactical skills under the same tutors.
The 10,000-man Cuban garrison which once fought on the side of the secessionists sits on the sidelines with guns pointed toward Ethiopia's bitter enemy Somalia, which at one time played host to these same troops.
To prove his sincerity, Mengistu has moved virtually his entire cabinet to the Eritrean capital of Asmara. Government ministries have been ordered to send their best people to Asmara as part of the development campaign for the area, helping prove the government point that Red Star is not only a military operation.
A defeat in Red Star could bring renewal of secessionist violence in other African states. While sympathizing with the rebels, many Black African and Arab nations are rooting for Ethiopia to teach all secessionist movements a lesson.
The price has been high. In the first two months of the campaign about 3,000 Ethiopian soldiers were killed or wounded.
But the war has had an even deeper cost. Ethiopia's independence has suffered. It now owes the Soviet Union $2.5 billion in military credits and half that in oil credits. The Ethiopians have never been under colonial domination and resentment of Soviet power is growing.
'If the Eritrean war ends, there is no longer any need for any type of major foreign presence in Ethiopia,' said one diplomat. 'That would be the biggest victory of all for the Ethiopians.'