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Eritrea/Ethiopia: Zela Ambesa (Zelambessa, Zalambessa; Zalambesa; Zalembessa); whether the town was located in the province of Eritrea in 1948; distance from Makalé (Me'kelé); whether it is currently part of the disputed territory in the current Eritrea/Ethiopia conflict

Publisher Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Author Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada
Publication Date 1 July 1999
Citation / Document Symbol ZZZ32347.E
Cite as Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Eritrea/Ethiopia: Zela Ambesa (Zelambessa, Zalambessa; Zalambesa; Zalembessa); whether the town was located in the province of Eritrea in 1948; distance from Makalé (Me'kelé); whether it is currently part of the disputed territory in the current Eritrea/Ethiopia conflict, 1 July 1999, ZZZ32347.E, available at: [accessed 25 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


The Research Directorate was unable to determine whether the town of Zela Ambesa (Zelambessa, Zalambessa; Zalambesa; Zalembessa) was located in the province of Eritrea in 1948. The question is a very complex one owing to the fact that between August 1945 and December 1950 the fate of the former Italian colonies, including Eritrea, was the subject of intense debate and negotiation at the United Nations (Cliffe and Davidson 1988, 18-21). It wasn't until 2 December 1950 that the Ethiopia-Eritrea federation plan, as incorporated in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 390-A(V), led to the formal union of the territories of Ethiopia and Eritrea (ibid., 21). Furthermore, Zela Ambesa does not appear on a number of maps consulted by the Research Directorate (1935, 1981, 1986); and in fact is shown only on the most recent maps depicting the current Eritrea/Ethiopia conflict (CIA 1999; New African June 1999, 21; AI 21 May 1999, 9).

The latter maps all contain statements to the effect that the relative locations of the Ethiopia/Eritrea boundary and Zela Ambesa are not authoritative (ibid.). With this caveat, however, the CIA and Amnesty International maps indicate that Zela Ambesa is approximately 130 kilometres north of Makalé (Me'kelé). The extent to which the status of Zela Ambesa is disputed is seen in an incident reported on the EthioForum Listserv in which Reuters, which had originally described Zela Ambesa (Zalambessa) as an Eritrean town in a 13 November 1998 report, subsequently published a retraction, describing it as a "border town" without assigning it to either country (16 Nov. 1998).

As indicated by the brief chronology below, numerous media reports state that the Zela Ambesa region has been the scene of recent conflict between Ethiopian and Eritrean armed forces:

8 June 1998 - Zela Ambesa (Zalambessa) is one of three fronts in which troops have clashed; Ethiopia claims to have captured the town (The Ottawa Citizen)

9 June 1998 - Large mobilizations reported on both sides of the border at Zela Ambesa (Zalambessa) (ibid.)

9 June 1998 - Conflict "resumed in earnest" around Zela Ambesa (Zalambessa) which was captured the previous week by Eritrea (IPS)

9 June 1998 - The Eritrean embassy in Washington announces that Ethiopia has launched a fresh attack in the area of Zela Ambesa (Zalambessa) (Embassy of Eritrea)

11 June 1998 - "Fighting raged" near Zela Ambesa (Zalambessa) (The Ottawa Citizen)

26 June 1998 - Ethiopian and Eritrean forces "exchanged artillery fire" near Zela Ambesa (Zalambessa) (Addis Tribune)

13 August 1998 - In a speech to the United Nations Sub-Commission On Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, the observer for Ethiopia states that Eritrean forces have "shelled and completely destroyed" Zela Ambesa (Zalambessa), forcing 15,000 residents to flee to the town of Adigrat where they were "bombed again a week later" (Embassy of Ethiopia)

17 November 1998 - Heavy shelling is reported at Zela Ambesa (Zalambesa) "now occupied by Eritrea" (AP)

8 February 1999 - Ethiopia is reportedly planning to "open another front at Zalambesa" (IPS)

8 February 1999 - Eritrean officials claim that fighting has broken out in the region of Zela Ambesa (Zalambessa) (CNN)

16 February 1999 - Fighting reported on the front near Zela Ambesa (Zalambessa) (AP)

11 March 1999 - The Ethiopian government warns that it is preparing a new offensive at Zela Ambesa (Zalambessa) (BBC)

13 March 1999 - Some Ethiopians are unprepared to accept an OAU peace plan until Zela Ambesa (Zalambessa) is recaptured (The Economist)

19 March 1999 - War "at the Zalambessa-Egela front" is in its fifth day (Addis Tribune)

15 April 1999 - The Eritrean embassy in Washington claims that Zela Ambesa (Zalambesa) had earlier in the year been among a number of targets bombed by Ethiopian aircraft (Embassy of Eritrea)

17 April 1999 - It is reported that Eritrea still holds Zela Ambesa (Zalambessa) (The Economist)

15 May 1999 - Ethiopian sources cited as claiming that they had bombed "and badly damaged a logistics centre and an armoured vehicle unit" at Zela Ambesa (Zalambessa) (AP)

June 1999 - In an article detailing the high casualty toll of the conflict, reports of the extent and intensity of the fighting near Zela Ambesa (Zalambessa) in March 1999 are described. It is stated that "In one part of the battlefield, about the size of a football pitch, they counted 300 dead. The Ethiopians had been ordered to march, on foot, behind Russian tanks towards the heavily fortified Eritrean positions." (New African)

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.


Addis Tribune [Addis Ababa]. 19 March 1999. "Eritrea Resorting to Her Final Defense Mechanism - Casualties Phenomenally High." [Accessed 16 July 1999]

_____. 26 June 1998. "Eritrea; Brief Fighting on Border while Mobilization Continues." (NEXIS)

Amnesty International (AI). 21 May 1999. Ethiopia and Eritrea. Human Rights in a Year of Armed Conflict. (AI Index: AFR 04/03/99)

Associated Press (AP). 15 May 1999. "Ethiopia Bombs Eritrean Front Line." (NEXIS)

_____. 16 February 1999. "Ethiopian Jets Drop Bombs Near Eastern Eritrean Port." (NEXIS)

_____. 17 November 1999. "Eritrea; Ethiopia Deports Another 661 Eritreans." (NEXIS)

BBC Online. 11 March 1999. "World: Africa. Ethiopia Doubts Eritrea's Pledge to Withdraw." [Accessed 16 July 1999]

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).1999. Map. Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia. [Accessed 15 July 1999]

Lionel Cliffe and Basil Davidson, eds. 1988. The Long Struggle of Eritrea for Independence and Constructive Peace. Nottingham: Spokesman.

CNN Interactive. 8 February 1999. "Ethiopia, Eritrea Open New Border War Front." [Accessed 16 July 1999]

The Economist [New York]. 17 April 1999. "Carnage on the Plain." (NEXIS)

_____. 13 March 1999. "Ethiopia and Eritrea. Trench Warfare." (NEXIS)

Embassy of Eritrea. 15 April 1999. "Eritrea; Ethiopian Jets Bomb Civilian Areas." (Africa News Service/NEXIS)

_____. 9 June 1998. "Eritrea; Ethiopia Launches a Fresh Attack in the Zalambesa Area." (Africa News Service/NEXIS)

Embassy of Ethiopia. 13 August 1998. "Ethiopia; Ethiopia Testifies Against Atrocities in Eritrea." (Africa News Service/NEXIS)

EthioForum. 16 November 1998. "Reuters Makes Corrections."                              [Accessed 16 July 1999]

Ethiopia: Reference Map. 1988. Moscow: Geodesy and Cartography.

Ethiopia. 1981. National Atlas of Ethiopia. Ethiopian Mapping Agency.

France. Armée. Service géographique. 1935. Ethiopie et régions limitrophes. Paris : Le Service, 1935.

Inter Press Service (IPS). 8 February 1999. Judith Achieng'. "Politics - Horn of Africa: Behind the Ethiopian/Eritrean Conflict." (NEXIS)

_____. 9 June 1998. Moyiga Nduru and Nhial Bol. "Eritrea - Ethiopia: War Turns Exiles into Unconditional Patriots." (NEXIS)

New African [London]. June 1999. Alan Rake. "Africa's Bloodiest War?"

The Ottawa Citizen. 11 June 1998. Louise Tunbridge. "Foreigners Flee as War in Eritrea Worsens." (NEXIS)

_____. 9 June 1998. Louise Tunbridge. "Eritrea and Ethiopia Edge Closer to War." (NEXIS)

_____. 8 June 1998. "Dozens of Canadians Flee Troubled Eritrea: Tiny African Nations Headed for Full War." (NEXIS)


Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).1999. Map. Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia. [Accessed 15 July 1999]

Copyright notice: This document is published with the permission of the copyright holder and producer Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The original version of this document may be found on the offical website of the IRB at Documents earlier than 2003 may be found only on Refworld.

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