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Crisis Group Warns of Risk of New Eritrea-Ethiopia Conflict


The International Crisis Group (ICG) has warned that Eritrea and Ethiopia risk a return to war over a disputed border. In a report released Tuesday, the Brussels-based group called for the international community to step up its efforts to find a solution to the impasse. Derek Kilner has more from VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi.

From 1998 to 2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a war over their border that killed about 70,000 people. They signed a ceasefire in Algiers in 2000, but tensions have never completely cooled.

The 2000 agreement established a boundary commission that awarded much of the disputed territory, including the town of Badme, to Eritrea. But Ethiopia has rejected the findings of that commission, whose mandate has since expired, and has accused Eritrea of deploying troops in a demilitarized buffer zone along the border.

With both sides keeping large numbers of troops along the border, observers have long feared a return to conflict. Those fears grew in December when Eritrea began refusing to allow fuel supplies to reach the U.N. peacekeeping force, known as UNMEE, causing the body to remove its border monitors.

"There is no longer UNMEE in the Temporary Security Zone per se, so UNMEE has been temporarily redeployed out of Eritrea and it is probably going to be a permanent redeployment," said Andebrhan Giorgis, the International Crisis Group's Africa Advocacy Director.

The International Crisis Group says that neither Eritrea nor Ethiopia desires a return to war. In addition to concerns about the economic consequences of renewed fighting, the group says, the governments of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia and President Isaias Afwerki in Eritrea use the security threat of the boundary dispute to bolster authoritarian rule within their borders.

But the report says with troops from both sides often "less than a football pitch's distance" from one another, the risk of a small dispute spiraling into a broader conflict are substantial, especially without monitoring from U.N. forces. And escalation of the conflicts in neighboring Somalia or Ethiopia's Ogaden region could also trigger renewed fighting, which in turn could further destabilize those regions.

Giorgis says the report also calls for the United Nations and donor countries to increase engagement in the dispute, putting more pressure on the parties and offering incentives in the form of increased aid, security guarantees and the benefits of normalized relations.

"They need to persuade both of them to comply with their treaty obligations," he added. "The international community is not asking for them to do something they have not agreed [to]. We are calling on the international community to ensure compliance with the treaty willingly entered into by both sides."

The reports calls for the United Nations to appoint a "high-profile" special envoy and urges the United States to warn Ethiopia that military action would jeopardize the close strategic relationship Addis Ababa enjoys with Washington.

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