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UN’s Ethiopia-Eritrea force at risk
By Harvey Morris at the United Nations
January 29 2008
The United Nations might be forced to evacuate its peacekeepers next month from the tense border zone between Ethiopia and Eritrea, removing the most visible deterrent to renewed warfare between the east African neighbours.
The UN Security Council was due on Wednesday to renew the mandate of the 1,700 peacekeepers for a further six months, despite the news that Eritrean restrictions on fuel supplies to the UN force made its situation untenable beyond February. Azouz Ennifar, UN special representative in the region, said last week the force would soon have only enough diesel stocks to stage a retreat.
The eight-year-old UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) was deployed after a 1998-2000 border war in which 70,000 people were killed. The crisis that has paralysed the mission is the latest sign of worsening relations between the two countries. It comes at a time when the outside world is preoccupied with the deteriorating situations in nearby Kenya and in Somalia, where both Ethiopia and Eritrea have a strategic interest.
The latest tension, in which thousands of troops from both sides have been deployed to the frontier zone in recent months, is ostensibly about implementation of an independent demarcation ruling on where the border lies. The Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission, based in The Hague, disbanded itself last November after saying a line it had drawn on maps in 2002 was the only valid border in the absence of the possibility of setting up physical markers in the disputed zone.
Eritrea accepted the ruling, which awarded it the village of Badme, a focal point of the border war. But Ethiopia demanded more talks, with Meles Zenawi, its prime minister, describing what he called the virtual demarcation of the border as “legal nonsense”.
Isaias Afwerki, the Eritrean president, this month wrote to Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, saying that, since the border was now demarcated, the continued presence of UNMEE forces amounted to occupation. In December, Eritrea suspended all fuel supplies to the peacekeepers.
Underlying the dispute is the mutual distrust of the authoritarian regimes in Addis Ababa and Asmara about their wider strategies in the Horn of Africa. Each accuses the other of funding insurgencies aimed at unseating the rival regime, while Eritrea sees Ethiopia as seeking to establish its hegemony as a vanguard of US policy in the region.
Ethiopia lost its access to the Red Sea when Eritrea seceded in 1993 after a 30-year insurgency. Eritrea’s leaders fear its larger neighbour intends to re-establish its supremacy in the Horn by fostering the emergence of a more pliable regime in Asmara.
Their relations have deteriorated since Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 to prop up its western-backed government, justifying the intervention in part as a response to Eritrea’s supply of weaponry to Somalia’s Islamic Courts movement. The US, which regards Ethiopia as an ally in its war on terror, recently warned that it might declare Eritrea a state sponsor of terrorism because of its continued support for Somali insurgents.
”We believe the government in Asmara is well aware of our capabilities and another invasion would lead to their downfall,” Mr Meles told the Ethiopian parliament late last year.
Both sides have said they would not be the first to relaunch war. But international observers believe an isolated border incident could reignite the conflict.
The International Crisis Group estimated in November that the two sides had tens of thousands of troops dug in along their 620 mile frontier, inside a theoretical 25km-wide Temporary Security Zone that was to have been established following a peace agreement in 2000. It said some of the opposing forces were less than 100 yards apart.
Ethiopia last week said Eritrean forces opened fire on its own soldiers who were trying to defect to the Ethiopian lines, killing one and wounding another. The Ethiopian military reported the incident to UNMEE. Next time, the UN peacekeepers might not be there to deal with the complaint.
Source: The Financial Times