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Ethiopia And Eritrea Agree To Cooperate In Ending Border Disputes - 2003-12-19

Ethiopian and Eritrean military have come close to an agreement on how to cooperate in quelling local conflicts along the hundreds of kilometers of their contested border.

The head of the 42-hundred strong United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea, General Robert Gordon, said Friday both sides have agreed in principle to work together to maintain peace and stability along their one thousand-kilometer contested border.

General Gordon says there is military stability along the Temporary Security Zone, which is patrolled by UN forces and separates the two Horn of Africa countries.

But, he says, non-military incidents, such as cattle rustling, could threaten to break the fragile peace if they are allowed to escalate.

"Our concern is that there can be local flare-ups for local issues, which, if there was trust on both sides, those issues could be resolved at a local level."

Ethiopia and Eritrea are locked in a bitter dispute about the exact location of their border, which was the cause of a war from 1998 to 2000 in which an estimated 70,000 people died.

As part of a peace deal signed in 2000, the independent Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission was to have set up physical markers showing the exact border.

But the date of the demarcation exercise had been pushed back several times until the commission announced last fall it was postponing the exercise indefinitely. Ethiopia is reportedly upset with the commission's decision to include an area called Badme within Eritrea's border.

Other than a shooting incident along the border last month, the area has remained relatively calm. But, General Gordon says the area is a potential tinderbox.

"Because of the stalled demarcation process that we are now facing, and the tension that is in those areas, our concern is that a small, local flare-up could lead to a wider conflagration."

General Gordon says the tentative agreement includes setting up joint military commissions in different areas along the border that would work with local police and other authorities to deal with potentially volatile situations.

He says the two sides have agreed in principle to the proposal and are looking at the fine print before signing the deal.