A conference of Eritrean exile groups is underway in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa to discuss strategies for ousting President Isaias Afwerki. VOA's Peter Heinlein reports the conference is raising temperatures in the volatile Horn of Africa region.
Officially, the theme is Consolidating Resources to Restore Democracy to Eritrea. But make no mistake, the 200 delegates attending the conference at an Ethiopian Red Cross center in Addis Ababa are united for one purpose, the overthrow of Eritrea's president-for-life Isaias Afwerki.
Conference organizer Hamed Saleh Turki, of the Eritrean Democratic Alliance, called on members of the 13 mostly U.S. and European-based Eritrean exile groups to put aside the differences that have limited their effectiveness since the umbrella organization was formed last year.
"It is our duty as Eritreans, members of this Congress, to take more strength and more seriousness in order to bring this regime down," Turki said. "The entire Eritrean population is looking to this Congress as a big hope in order to take our country from the hell-fire."
Ethiopia's hosting of this conference is a sign of the heated rivalry between the Horn of Africa neighbors. Eritrea was part of Ethiopia during most of the last half of the 20th century, but won independence after Eritrean and Ethiopian rebels together overthrew a communist government in Addis Ababa in the early 1990s.
After a brief period of friendly ties, the relationship soured. The neighbors fought a border war that killed 70,000 people from 1998 to 2000. Since then, the rivals have regularly traded charges of backing rebel groups trying to overthrow each other.
The head of the Sweden-based Eritrean Federal Democratic Movement, Bashir Isaac, is one of the delegates attending the Addis Ababa conference. He says there is a growing feeling among war-weary Eritreans that another conflict may be inevitable.
"Our people are tired for war, war is devastating, the winner at the end of the day is a loser," Isaac said. "We do not opt for war, we do not want to put our society in another war, which will maybe take different forms... We do not opt for war, unless we were very much pushed into that corner, and if we see there is no other way than to fight, then we will fight."
Last month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that a new war could break out if a U.N. peacekeeping mission along the heavily-militarized Eritrea-Ethiopia border were disbanded. But Mr. Ban's warning came after Eritrea had expelled the 1500 member U.N. mission from a buffer zone that had separated the two country's armies, effectively rendering the blue-helmeted force useless.
The Security Council issued statements condemning Eritrea's expulsion order, but failed to take any further action. Ethiopia last week chided the world body for what it called "appeasing" Eritrea, and urged the Security Council to act forcefully against the Asmara government.
Reaction from Eritrea has been muted. In a statement issued in February, Eritrea's foreign ministry said it was expelling the U.N. peacekeepers because their presence was not in keeping with the 2000 Algiers peace agreement aimed at resolving the border dispute.
The statement accused the world body of "issuing a string of anonymous statements" that distorted the reality of the peacekeeping mission, but gave no further details.