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Tensions between Eritrea, Ethiopia on the rise
BY PAUL SALOPEK
Marooned at the end of 20 miles of dirt road, the tiny frontier outpost consists of a knot of rock huts, some jaywalking goats and one communal pingpong table. Not the sort of place, one would imagine, that once inspired 70,000 men to die in battle. Or still destabilizes a chunk of territory inhabited by 90 million people. Or gives U.S. policymakers in Africa the jitters.
Yet remote little Badme, the flash point of a brutal territorial conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the late 1990s, is responsible for all of these woes. And, today, experts worry that the contested town, which is claimed by both countries but controlled by Ethiopia, may be poised to spark even worse trouble ahead - namely, Africa's next major war.
While the U.S. military is focusing much of its attention in Africa on anti-terror efforts in places like Somalia, old hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea appear to be heating up on an arid plateau a few hundred miles to the north, with potentially devastating consequences for the people of Africa's Horn. Archenemies Ethiopia and Eritrea insist that renewed fighting along their desolate 620-mile-long common border is not imminent.
But diplomats, security experts and U.N. officials warn that recent saber-rattling by the two nations' leaders, beefed-up troop deployments along their heavily fortified border and even the timing of the U.S. presidential
Western diplomats suspect that Ethiopia, the Goliath of the two opponents, is sorely tempted to deliver a killer blow against its smaller rival before the Bush administration, a close Ethiopian ally, leaves office at the beginning of 2009. Last year, Ethiopia invaded Somalia and, with clandestine Pentagon help, toppled an emerging Islamist movement accused of sheltering al-Qaida operatives.
And though tiny Eritrea has more to risk in going to war, experts say its deepening isolation from the world doesn't preclude its launching a pre-emptive strike. One bleak scenario: an assault on contested territory in November, when an exasperated boundary commission set up by the U.N. packs up after years of Ethiopian stonewalling, and declares the two countries' border officially mapped.
"I don't want to be here if it happens," said Tsegaye Redaye, a sad-eyed merchant in Badme whose tea shop's construction included expended tank shells from the previous war.
"But I guess there won't be anywhere to run to," he added, squinting out at the gaunt plains that both governments call their own. "The war will be everywhere."
Most military analysts would agree.
In the bloody 1998-2000 conflict, tens of thousands of Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers died in a ghastly World War I-style trench war that baffled the world. Still, the bloodshed finally was stanched by foreign mediation. Now, after seven years of failed U.N. negotiations, experts say the sole object of the opposing armies will be regime change: a battle to the finish. Nearby Somalia would be sucked into the chaos and violence, analysts say.
"In a post-9/11 world, that's what worries Washington," said Dan Connell, an Ethiopia-Eritrea war expert at Simmons College in Boston. "If either state were to fall, it would open up the Horn to all sorts of power vacuums and outside forces, including international terrorists. It could get very ugly."
Such ugliness was nowhere on the horizon a decade ago, when Ethiopia and Eritrea symbolized all the promise of a shining new Africa.
Back then, Ethiopia had just thrown off the yoke of a ruthless communist regime and agreed to let a breakaway province - feisty Eritrea - become independent. The two governments were brothers in arms. Their leaders, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, are even distantly related. But struggles to be top dog in the Horn, plus bitter economic and territorial quarrels, culminated in a family feud waged with artillery.
Today, human-rights groups accuse both regimes of democratic backsliding.
Ethiopia, the regional powerhouse with 76 million people, has been roundly criticized for sentencing more than 30 opposition activists and politicians to life imprisonment after a disputed 2005 election. The prisoners were pardoned in July.
The charges leveled at Eritrea are more serious. This year, the U.S. State Department added minuscule Eritrea, population about 4 million, to its blacklist of the world's most repressive regimes, largely because of reported crackdowns on journalists, political dissenters and evangelical Christians.
Impoverished Ethiopia and Eritrea maintain the largest armies in Africa. At the moment, well over 100,000 soldiers from both countries are dug in along their joint frontier.
On July 30, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to extend a weak peacekeeping mission of 1,700 international troops on the border for another six months. Both sides have agreed to meet in September and wrangle over issues of demarcation. Few diplomats expect a breakthrough.
"Rationally, we would never believe Eritrea will take that step - to restart the war," said Tekeda Alemu, the deputy minister for foreign affairs in Ethiopia. "Yet, why does the Eritrean president behave as he does, except to say he has an emotional, visceral opposition to this country's government?"
Like many Ethiopians, Tekeda alleges that Eritrea's bad behavior includes terrorist activities. On July 25, a leaked U.N. investigation fingered Eritrea for reportedly flying 13 planeloads of arms to Islamic militants battling Ethiopian troops in Somalia.
Eritrea hotly denies the charges that it is exporting mischief to bleed Ethiopia.
"It's part of the smear campaign coming out of Langley," Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu said, referring to the Virginia hometown of the CIA headquarters. "It's just another face of the war against Eritrea."
Source: Chicago Tribune