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Ethiopia-Eritrea Tensions Mount


Increasing tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea are fueling fears of a new war over the two nations' five-year old border dispute and involvement in neighboring Somalia.

Hostility between Ethiopia and its former province, Eritrea, is rooted in decades of conflict that culminated in Asmara's 1993 independence from Addis Ababa. Disputes over the border and the contested town of Badme led to a 1998 war that claimed nearly 70-thousand lives. Despite signing a peace agreement in Algiers in 2000, relations continued to deteriorate when a United Nations' boundary commission awarded Badme to Eritrea. Ethiopia rejected the ruling and Eritrea refused to renegotiate, noting that the ruling was supposed to be binding.

A Stalemate at the Border

Terrence Lyons of George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution says the agreement left Ethiopia and Eritrea in a stalemate.

“The border remains heavily militarized, very tense. There's no direct communication between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Furthermore, the international institutions and the international framework to support implementation of the Algiers agreement are dangerously off the rails,” says Lyons. “The Ethiopia-Eritrea border commission is not able to delimit the border on the ground as it was designed to do. The U.N. mission has had to be scaled back in part because of Eritrean restrictions and in part because of budget constraints across the U.N. peacekeeping system.”

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged both nations to implement the peace agreement and offered to help diffuse the situation. He also has warned Ethiopia and Eritrea that their involvement in "other complex, regional crises," a reference to Somalia, is fueling tensions.

Rising Tensions

Addis Ababa and Asmara have been trading accusations, even before Ethiopian forces ousted the Islamist government in Mogadishu in support of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government. Ethiopia accuses Eritrea of supporting Somalia's Islamists. Eritrea accuses Ethiopia of invading Somalia and meddling in its affairs. Each denies the other's accusations. Further complicating the situation was a rebel attack on an oil facility in Ethiopia's Somali Ogaden region last month that killed 74 people. Ethiopia accuses Eritrea of supporting the rebels, a charge Eritrea denies.

George Mason University's Terrence Lyons says the attack reflects the acrimonious relationship between Addis Ababa and Asmara. "It is an indication of what has been an escalation that goes back really to 2005, when Eritrea, frustrated that Ethiopia was not implementing the border commission's decision, began to put pressure on the United Nations mission, on Ethiopia and Eritrea and, in other ways, to escalate the conflict with Ethiopia through indirect means by funding groups in Somalia and by providing assistance to Ethiopian insurgent groups. Such as the Ogaden National Liberation Front," says Lyons.

A Proxy War in Somalia?

While some observers worry about the possibility of renewed hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea, many analysts say neither side wants a new war. If there is an escalation, William Zartman of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies says it would probably take place in Somalia.

“In a situation like that, if it is too dangerous to have a frontal attack by one side or another, then you can always play next door as a side attack. But it's not a proxy war in the sense of both of them getting out there with their tanks, but certainly a proxy of the dispute. They are going to keep itching at it and by all the means possible,” says Zartman. “And the vacuum in Somalia gives them both a chance to play in neighboring territory.”

Most analysts point out that Ethiopia and Eritrea have been using Somalia to oppose each other for the past year. The Heritage Foundation's Brett Shaefer says the two nations have seized upon local Somali politics and disputes to wage their own proxy war in Somalia.

“Eritrea supported the Islamic Courts Union, the Islamic government that was taking over southern Somalia. Ethiopia then stepped in and supported the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia. For a moment,” says Shaefer, “the Islamic government with the support of Eritrean arms and training looked to have the upper hand. But then Ethiopian reprisal [and] invasion scattered that force and the Transitional Federal Government appeared to have a moment of success. But that appears to be unraveling as we speak.”

Some observers say Ethiopian forces may become mired in Somalia, where they are unpopular with most factions and warlords. This situation, says George Mason University's Terrence Lyons, bolsters Asmara's position against Addis Ababa.

"I am not sure that Ethiopia knows how to disengage. It has tied itself so closely to the Transitional Federal Government, or the T.F.G., that it is difficult for Ethiopia to withdraw so long as its presence is necessary for the T.F.G. to stay in power. So Eritrea is taking advantage of insurgencies and opposition in Somalia to tie Ethiopia down, thereby trying to put pressure on Ethiopia on the border issue,” says Lyons.

Some analysts argue that while Ethiopia could pull out of Somalia at any time, it would probably leave behind a chaotic situation. The bright side, says George Washington University's David Shinn, is that the tangle of Ethiopian-Eritrean-Somali rivalries has remained relatively contained.

"The one silver lining in all of this is the fact that it [i.e., the fighting] has been confined to a couple of locations in Somalia and it has not extended further into the region beyond Somalia, with the possible exception of that attack on the oil exploration facility in the Ogaden [region], I think indirectly there probably is a link there. But it certainly has not had a military impact beyond that outside the borders of Somalia," says Shinn.

But many analysts say Ethiopia's and Eritrea's involvement in Somalia have added a dangerous dimension to their border dispute that could have broader implications for the entire region.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.