The United Nations is halting peacekeeping operations in Eritrea, and closing its mission headquarters in Asmara. The pullout comes two months after the Eritrean government cut off vital fuel supplies and ordered the peacekeepers out. The entire operation is being relocated to the Ethiopian side of the two countries' disputed border. From the Ethiopian town of Mekele, VOA's Peter Heinlein reports the pullout points up the world body's impotence in the face of a tiny country determined to expel its blue-helmeted peacekeepers.
The Mekele office of UNMEE (the U.N. Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea) is buzzing. The mission chief, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's Special Representative Azouz Ennifar is arriving shortly for an important meeting with a senior regional official. This office is soon to become temporary mission headquarters, and hasty preparations are underway. But the officer in charge, Greek Navy Lieutenant Commander Ioannis Vanizelos says no one is authorized to talk.
"Here is a liaison office for military observers. Today we have one visit. First we cannot give any kind of statement. Second, this is not the right time. We are expecting a visit from Addis and from Asmara. It's very important. So it's not the right time for any kind of discussions," he said.
The reluctance to talk reflects UNMEE's tenuous position here. U.N. missions operate only with the consent of the countries involved. Care must be taken not to make a diplomatic misstep. Special representative Ennifar declined to be interviewed for this report.
The U.N. Security Council created UNMEE in 2000, after a two-year border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea that killed 70,000 people. For seven years, the force helped keep border tensions low. But the situation changed late last year, when a commission appointed to settle the boundary dispute gave up trying to get the parties to agree and closed its doors, declaring that a line it drew in 2002 is the valid border. That line awards a small town at the heart of the dispute to Eritrea.
Ethiopia rejected the ruling, but Eritrea hailed it as a final and legally binding settlement. Eritrea then cut off fuel supplies to the peacekeepers, and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki sent a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon saying the presence of U.N. troops amounted to an illegal occupation.
The result was predictable. Tensions flared as Eritrean soldiers surged forward, past the peacekeepers, to the edge of the frontier.
At the border 140 kilometers up the road from Mekele, the two armies are dug in, eyeball to eyeball, as the first U.N. trucks roll past to begin the evacuation. Heavily-armed Ethiopian troops shelter in a ravine at the side of the road. Eritrean soldiers look down from a hilltop a few hundred meters away.
At the border checkpoint, Ethiopian soldier Balacho Tesfaye keeps one eye on the hills above as he lifts a flimsy pole to allow the U.N. convoy to pass. Speaking through an interpreter, he worries that one false step could trigger a war.
TESFAY: "Eritrean troops are here in the near place. If you go there, maybe the Ethiopian troops may attack you, because this is a tension area. The Eritrean troops are there, and the Ethiopian there.
HEINLEIN: "So we're right in the middle? So right over there are the Ethiopian troops, and over there, in those trees are the Eritrean troops?"
TESFAY: "Sure, sure."
UNMEE peacekeepers privately express frustration at being forced to leave at a time when tensions are rising. One military observer who requested anonymity, because he is not authorized to speak conceded that the world body is powerless in the face of Eritrea's expulsion order.
Many Ethiopians find the world body's inaction puzzling. In Mekele, prominent businessman Guesh Weldegebreal says it is hard to believe the international community would remain passive when a volatile region seems to be spinning toward conflict.
"If the international community or the U.N. is interested to resolve the conflict, they have the economic power, they have the political power, they have the military power, they have every power to resolve the conflict, and they should not let the two countries fight again," he said. "Now the international community seems to be weak in resolving the conflicts."
U.N. headquarters in New York issued a statement Thursday acknowledging that the "'relocation" of UNMEE peacekeepers is under way. The carefully worded statement alluded to another sensitive issue.
It read, "So far, some of UNMEE's convoys have been allowed to cross the border without any obstruction, while others have been stopped and asked to turn back."
A source close to the UN mission tells VOA that Eritrea is demanding that departing peacekeepers leave behind much of their hardware, including vehicles and communications gear.
The statement also said UNMEE officials are working with authorities in Eritrea to ensure that Eritrean troops receive instructions to allow the peacekeepers to take their equipment with them when they leave.
An UNMEE spokesman in Addis Ababa repeated Friday that there would be no comment whatsoever, underlining that tensions, both military and diplomatic, have reached a critical stage.