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Eritrea: African Peace Broker or Conflict Agitator?
By Rachelle Kliger
28 February 2008
The Horn of Africa is the scene of several bloody conflicts, notably the deadly conflict in Darfur in western Sudan and the fighting in Somalia.
Often accused of being an aggressor, the country of Eritrea is emerging as a player with considerable sway with regard to regional conflicts, even claiming it is trying to play a part in bringing peace to the region.
With fewer than five million inhabitants and slightly larger than Pennsylvania, Eritrea is a relatively small country in eastern Africa, bordering Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti, with the Red Sea to its east.
It is a poor country in a key strategic location.
In the neighboring Sudan, for example, Asmara ( Eritrea’s capital) helped broker a peace agreement between rival factions in the Sudanese civil war, and says it is playing a positive role in Darfur.
Eritrea was colonized by Italy in the late 19 th century. Following World War II it became a United Nations protectorate under British administration, and in 1951 was made an autonomous territory federated by Ethiopia.
Eritrea was annexed by the Ethiopian government in 1962, but fought against successive Ethiopian governments for three decades to gain independence.
This was realized in 1993, when the country declared independence and won international recognition.
A border dispute with Ethiopia began in 1998 and has yet to be resolved. Eritrea currently hosts United Nations peacekeeping forces, which are monitoring a 25-kilometer wide security zone on the border with Ethiopia.
It is this dispute that is coloring developments in other parts of the region, particularly in Somalia, which has not had a stable government in 17 years.
For more than a year Somalia's Transitional Federal Government has been fighting remnants of Islamist forces that briefly took over the capital and major parts of the country in 2006.
The Islamists were defeated in January 2007 by the Somali army, with backing from Ethiopian troops.
There have been repeated accusations that Eritrea hosted Somali rebels groups and equipped the Islamists with arms to fight the Ethiopian forces.
This has led observers to believe that Ethiopia and Eritrea are, in fact, waging a proxy war on Somali soil, with each country backing opposing sides in the conflict, and that this war is likely to spill over into other countries and engulf the whole of the Horn of Africa in warfare.
"It's been a surrogate war for some time," says Richard Cornwell, a senior research associate at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.
Cornwell believes that if Ethiopia and Eritrea manage to resolve their border dispute, this could pave the way to solving the conflict in Somalia.
Eritrea denies accusations of interference and claims it only has the interests of Somalia in mind.
"We're not helping any rebel group or any intervention in Somalia, but we're helping the whole Somali nation to have sovereignty," says Tesfamariam Tekeste, Eritrea's ambassador to Israel. "We're trying to bring the Somali groups together without any intervention or external agenda."
Eritrea's alleged support for rebel groups in Somalia has led to tension with the United States, which says Eritrea is offering sanctuary to terrorists. Last September Washington warned it would add Eritrea to its list of rogue states.
Tesfamariam says the problem with the U.S. is that it is taking Ethiopia's side in the border dispute.
He insists Eritrea was a close ally of the U.S. in the war on terror long before fighting terrorism became "fashionable."
Eritrea was a victim of terrorism before 9/11 and cooperated with the Americans in exchanging intelligence when Osama Bin Laden was based in neighboring Sudan, he says.
"What is the aim of Eritrea?" Tesfamariam asks. " Eritrea is a very small country, and a very poor country. If there is no peace and stability in our neighboring countries we cannot survive. We have to work for peace and stability in our region. This is the most important thing for us."
That Eritrea has full diplomatic relations with Israel is not a matter to be taken for granted. Half of Eritrea's population is Muslim and it has observer status at the Arab League, the vast majority of which shuns Israel diplomatically.
However, Tesfamariam, who has headed the embassy since its inception in 2004, insists these relations are quite natural.
The windows in his modest office, located in a high rise on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, look over a chaotic skyline of Israeli urban sprawl.
"We have a vital interest because of our proximity," Tesfamariam says. "We have so many things in common; we have economic proximity, security proximity, a lot of things where we can work together."
He does not rule out his country playing the role of a bridge between Israel and the rest of the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Despite its close relations with the Arab world, Eritrea has no ambition to become a full-fledged member in the 22-member Arab League.
Tesfamariam describes the league as something of a toothless tiger when it comes to solving regional conflicts. Eritrea is keen on being involved in the organization, given that it has many Arab neighbors, but the country has no reason to ask for a higher status in the organization, he says.
" Eritrea is not an Arab country, but we want to know how to contribute," he says.
Source: The Media Line