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Border Ruling Encourages Another War With Eritrea, says Ethiopia PM - 2003-10-17

Tension is rising in the Horn of Africa in the wake of renewed warnings by Ethiopia that the country will not bow to international pressure to accept a ruling made last year by an independent border commission. The ruling gave the hotly contested border town of Badme to rival Eritrea. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says any attempts to force his country to accept the border commission's ruling in its current form would only escalate political tensions and encourage the start of another war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

On Thursday, the prime minister assured his ministers in parliament that he did not want to see another conflict with Eritrea. But Mr. Meles warned that unless the United Nations intervened to find another way to define the border and Eritrea agreed to bilateral talks to resolve the issue, relations between the two countries could deteriorate further.

Eritrea has already rejected talks with Ethiopia on the issue. It has called on the international community to impose sanctions on Ethiopia for rejecting the new border, which both sides had earlier agreed to accept as final and binding.

In 1998, a skirmish between Ethiopian and Eritrean troops in the border town of Badme flared up into a full-scale war that lasted two years and claimed as many as 100,000 lives.

In December 2000, both countries signed a peace accord, agreeing to have, among other things, an independent commission rule definitively on a common border, something that was never done when Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

But Ethiopia was shocked by the commission's decision in April, 2002, to put the symbolically important town of Badme in Eritrea. Ethiopia has since repeatedly challenged the border ruling.

Last month, the United Nations Security Council declined Ethiopia's request to create an alternative mechanism to draw the border between the two countries.

The head of the 42,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea, Legwaila Joseph Legwaila, says the three-year-old peace process is now at an impasse.

"We are in a state of limbo," he said. "The process is undergoing severe stress. All of us have to keep calm, but at the same time, engage in discussion to make sure that the process never comes to a point where it collapses."

In Washington on Thursday, several House subcommittee members voted favorably on a bill they hope will encourage the Horn of Africa neighbors to abide by the decision of the border commission.

The proposed bill threatens to suspend some U.S. economic aid to both countries if they fail to keep the peace in the Horn. But it also provides incentives for both sides, including generous U.S. development aid to kick-start the economy of the disputed border area once a demarcation agreement is finalized.

The legislation will next be sent to the House International Relations Committee and then to the House of Representatives for a vote.

A year ago, Ethiopia and Eritrea joined Djibouti, Kenya and Yemen as partners in the United States' efforts to defeat terrorism in the East Africa region.