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Eritrea-Ethiopia Border Dispute Accentuates Broader Horn of Africa Tensions

Ethiopia and Eritrea are again trading accusations over a failure to settle their nine-year-old border dispute. Last week at the Hague, the commission adjudicating the disagreement said it intends to finalize coordinates of the borders by November if the sides remain deadlocked. Reporter Peter Heinlein in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa attended a news briefing yesterday with Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin in which the foreign ministry said it would not accept a boundary drawn up by the border commission. Heinlein says the lack of agreement between the two sides underscores one of many sources of tension involving the two Horn of Africa countries.

“In some cases, the two sides are only 70 to 80 meters apart, separated only by in some cases dry river beds. So he (Foreign Minister Seyoum) was quite concerned that many people at the news conference felt it might be more than posturing. But when he was asked whether this could mean we were back to square one, a de facto state of war, he said, ‘Ethiopia does not want war.’ On the other hand he said, ‘Peace needs two partners.’ And he certainly indicated that Eritrea at this point, in the minds of the Ethiopian government, is not a suitable partner for peace,” said Heinlein.

Last weekend, during a visit to the Ethiopian capital, the top US diplomat for Africa, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer, called on Horn of Africa leaders to do more to ease tensions in the region. Reporter Heinlein says other sources of Horn of Africa tensions that came up during Frazer’s discussions included the dispute over Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, and the rivalry with Eritrea over arming opposing sides in the war for Somalia. The US diplomat said it is not yet clear why aid agencies and humanitarian workers have been denied access to victims of violence in the Ogaden. But Heinlein says Frazer accused rebels in the Ogaden of having links to warring factions in neighboring Somalia and she singled out Eritrea for undermining stability in both Somalia and the Ogaden.

“She certainly did imply, if not directly point to Eritrea as an irritant in the region. She made a pretty stern warning to Eritrea that they could easily wind up on a list of state-sponsors of terrorism if they don’t quickly mend their ways,” he pointed out.

Heinlein notes with a sense of irony and some surprise that with Ethiopians busy welcoming the arrival Wednesday of the country’s Third Millennium anniversary, they have barely taken note of today’s sixth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 al Qaida attacks on the US Pentagon and New York City’s World Trade Center. But the Addis Ababa-based journalist says American troops stationed in the Horn of Africa are fully alert to the longstanding threats of international terrorism in the region where they are based.

“In all my talks with the Foreign Minister, the government spokesman (Bereket Simon), and the man in the street (yesterday), I haven’t heard a single reference to 9-11. I think it certainly plays on the Americans’ minds and the American troops in the region, at the base in Djibouti, for instance, are very much concerned about the influence of al Qaida and pro-al Qaida factions in Somalia. There’s also a concern about Eritrea possibly harboring terrorists, so certainly there’s a concern about that. But it’s interesting that here in the Horn of Africa, 9-11 is an awfully distant concept,” noted Heinlein.