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Ethiopia-Eritrea border deadline expires as tension escalates
Ethiopian soldiers guard the Temporary Security Zone with the Eritrean border
Nairobi, 1 December 2007 - A deadline for Ethiopia and Eritrea to agree on the physical demarcation of their border expired Saturday amid escalating tension between the two nations, leaving the frontier only delineated on maps.
After their 1998-2000 border war which left 70,000 people dead, the two Horn of Africa countries agreed The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration should demarcate the border both on maps and on the ground.
But the court's Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) was set to end its activities after the two countries failed to agree to its April 2002 ruling or request it to stay on by an end-of-November deadline.
The EEBC in its "final and irreversible" ruling on the disputed border granted Eritrea the border town of Badme, which Ethiopia has refused to accept, saying it split families between the countries.
In September, the two countries and the EEBC agreed that unless the 2002 ruling was accepted by November's end: "The boundary will automatically stand as demarcated ... and that the mandate of the commission can then be regarded as fulfilled."
Until they agree how to demarcate the border, the boundary set in the 2002 ruling remains the only legal borderline.
The standoff between the two neighbours has worsened -- with much flexing of military muscle -- ahead of the expiration of the commission's mandate.
Eritrea has repeatedly accused its bigger and more powerful neighbour of planning a new border war, a claim dismissed by Addis Ababa as a bid by Asmara to divert attention from its own internal woes.
By "refusing to withdraw from sovereign Eritrean territories, the (Ethiopian) regime has already launched an aggression against the Eritrean people," Asmara warned last week.
But Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said his army "would only react if there is full-scale invasion on the country's territory."
Still, Meles announced Tuesday he had boosted his defence budget by more than 54 million dollars (almost 37 million euros) to prepare for a possible resumption of hostilities with Eritrea.
"We believe the government in Asmara is well aware of our capabilities and another invasion would lead to their downfall," Meles told the Ethiopian parliament.
For now, analysts expect no military movement in the ground, although rival troops are eyeballing each across the 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) of border.
"We have to prepare for the worst, but expect the status quo to remain the same," an Asmara-based Western analyst told AFP. "The closure should not change anything on the ground, but it adds uncertainty to an already uncertain situation."
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group last month warned of a "real risk of renewed conflict" within weeks, if major international efforts are not made to avert it.
The policy group claimed Eritrea had some 4,000 troops and military hardware in the buffer zone with 120,000 troops nearby, while Ethiopia had around 100,000 troops along the border.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon has also expressed concern about the military buildup and urged the rivals to break the border demarcation stalemate.
Ban stressed the need to "preserve the integrity" of the border area and appealed to Eritrea to redeploy out of the region.
He also urged Asmara to lift its continued restrictions on operations of the UN peacekeeping mission UNMEE, which has monitored the Eritrea-Ethiopia frontier since the 2000 peace deal.
These restrictions include a ban on UN helicopter flights in Eritrea's airspace and its expulsion of UNMEE's North American and European staff.
Analysts say the two countries essentially fought a proxy war in lawless Somalia earlier this year, with Eritrea accused of supporting Islamist insurgents fighting Ethiopian troops that were bolstering the weak Somalian government.
The development comes as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due in Ethiopia next week to join a regional security meeting of the Great Lakes states -- Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda -- being held at African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa.
She will also hold bilateral meetings with Ethiopian officials over Horn of Africa 1security.Source: AFP