Eritrea and Ethiopia unleashed bombing raids against each other yesterday, shattering hopes that a peace formula to quell their border war had been found.
African nations pleaded with two of the continent's poorest countries to halt their escalating conflict, while the United States protested that attacks on the airport in the Eritrean capital endangered foreign nationals as they tried to flee the country.
Eritrean aircraft bombed the northern Ethiopian town of Mekele twice, witnesses said, killing dozens of people and wounding more than 100 in the town of 300,000 people, around 160 km north of Addis Ababa.
Thousands of residents of Mekele scrambled through the bombed area to help the wounded, who were carried to hospital in the back of pick-up trucks. At least 15 bodies lay in the streets and residents said dozens more had been killed in their homes.
Ethiopian jets answered the first raid on Mekele by bombing Eritrea's main air base. Four Ethiopian MiG 23 jets attacked Asmara airport, hitting both the civilian and military parts of the complex.
A correspondent at the scene said one Ethiopian jet was shot down by Eritrean gunfire during the raid. A Zambian Airlines cargo aircraft parked on the runway was also hit.
"They also hit the road near the airport," said a correspondent Alexander Last. "So far as we can tell at least one person has been killed and four injured," he said.
Earlier in the day, the Eritrean government had appeared to cautiously accept an international four-point plan to settle its bloody border row with Ethiopia.
"At the same time, the government of Eritrea believes. . . there are still serious issues of detail and implementation that need to be worked out in the period ahead," it said in a statement.
The plan, brokered by diplomats from the United States and Rwanda, calls for troops from Ethiopia and Eritrea to withdraw from disputed territory, for an observer force to be deployed, for the return of civilian administration to disputed areas and for an investigation into the roots of the conflict.
The Ethiopian Prime Minister, Mr Meles Zenawi, told a news conference on Thursday his government had accepted the plan.
Ethiopia and Eritrea have argued peacefully over their border for years, but the dispute turned violent on May 6th with each accusing the other of invading.
Eritrean authorities refused permission for a chartered plane to land in Asmara to evacuate some 60 Britons after two Ethiopian air raids, a British Foreign Office spokeswoman said.
The spokeswoman said 59 Britons had flown out aboard a plane chartered by the United States to escape the sudden conflict and would go to Frankfurt, but a second flight that was to have taken the other 60 was not allowed.
In Frankfurt, the British consulate vice-consul, Ms Jane Lacey-Smith, said about 100 Americans were also on the flight that left in late afternoon.
She said the majority of the Britons on this flight were Voluntary Service Organisation workers.