In a report to the U.N. secretary-general this week, an international boundary commission trying to create a permanent border between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa said that the body will likely dissolve at the end of next month without reaching a comprehensive agreement. As VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa bureau in Nairobi, the apparent failure to settle the issue diplomatically has heightened fears that Ethiopia and Eritrea could now try to end the stalemate once and for all through war.
With its U.N. mandate expiring in less than five weeks, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission acknowledges that seven years of negotiations to demarcate the border have largely failed.
A former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn, says while both sides are guilty of frustrating the process, it could be argued that the border commission may have been able to achieve more if Ethiopia, from the beginning, had accepted the commission's 2002 ruling, which awarded the fiercely contested border town of Badme to Eritrea.
"Strictly from a legal point of view, the Ethiopians are on shakier ground for the simple reason that it was a binding arbitration to begin with and Ethiopia chose to conclude that there were problems," he said. "They did not accept the final agreement. Well, you cannot do that. Binding arbitration is binding arbitration."
Transcripts of the last boundary commission meeting, held in early September at The Hague in the Netherlands and made available to VOA, shows Ethiopia refusing to move forward with talks on the border issue until its bitter rival, Eritrea, met several conditions, including ending Eritrea's alleged support for anti-Ethiopian rebel groups in the region.
With the meeting going nowhere, commission members ended their final session earlier than expected, reminding both sides that the 2002 decision will stand as is, if the talks fail to progress further before the commission dissolves.
In 1998, a border clash around Badme escalated into a full-scale war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, killing thousands on both sides and displacing nearly 1.5 civilians.
In 2000, the two countries signed a peace accord that called on Ethiopia and Eritrea to withdraw to positions before the outbreak of hostilities.
A 25-kilometer buffer zone, policed by U.N. peacekeepers, was created to allow a U.N.-backed boundary commission time to establish a permanent border.
Complaining that the international community was not doing enough to force Ethiopia to give up the town of Badme, Eritrea began moving troops into the buffer zone in 2005.
Recent reports indicate that tens of thousands of highly-trained and well-armed Eritrean and Ethiopian troops are now in the border area, poised to fight another war.
Nairobi-based political analyst and regional commentator, Ojwang Agina, says he believes Eritrea could launch the first strike.
"There is a feeling in Eritrea that Ethiopia is weak now, that it is involved in the Ogaden region and in Somalia," said Agina. "If you add a third element, the Ethiopian-Eritrean border, it really puts Ethiopia in a hard position. So, that could easily mislead Eritrea into starting a war."
Tens of thousands of Ethiopian troops are currently in Somalia, battling an Islamist-led insurgency against the secular government Ethiopia helped put in power nearly a year ago.
The anti-Ethiopian insurgency in Somalia has also emboldened ethnically Somali rebels in the Ogaden region of southeast Ethiopia to step up their activities against Addis Ababa.
In June, the Ethiopian government sent massive troop reinforcements to the Ogaden and initiated a crackdown on the local population that some human rights activists have compared to the actions of the Sudanese government in war-torn western Darfur.
But as thinly-stretched as the Ethiopian military is right now, U.S.-based political scientist and Horn of Africa expert, Ken Menkhaus, says he does not believe Eritrea is in any position to provoke a fight with Ethiopia.
"I was in Eritrea this summer," he said. "One of the things that was being discussed quietly was the horrific condition of the Eritrean military itself. It is underfed. The country is really in a state of economic collapse. I think most people who watch Ethiopia and Eritrea closely believe that Ethiopia would roll over Eritrea if the two countries went to war."
If another war does ignite between the two Horn of African rivals, the executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, Jim Paul, says he believes the international community, particularly the United States, must shoulder some of the blame.
The Bush administration had long had a close relationship with the Christian-led government in Ethiopia, which it considers a strategic partner in U.S. efforts to fight terrorism in the region.
Paul says he believes the administration did not use the leverage it has with Ethiopia to force the country into accepting the 2002 boundary commission ruling.
"That they refused to go along with the border commission settlement, the Ethiopians had to have not felt any political pressure. And I think the United States does bear considerable responsibility. It is certainly one of the reasons that this thing has continued," said Paul.
Ken Menkhaus disagrees.
"The government of the United States has real limits to the influence it can wield with the government of Ethiopia. What the United States can and must do is to put great pressure on both sides not to start a war," said Menkhaus.
Menkhaus acknowledges that may be easier said than done.
Both Ethiopia and the United States accuse Eritrea of arming and funding rebel and terrorist groups and fighting a proxy war against Ethiopia in Somalia, the Ogden region and elsewhere. Eritrea denies the accusations.
Menkhaus says recent statements made by the Assistant Sec of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, may have aggravated an already tense situation in the Horn.
"She made a statement about the government of Eritrea - in order to stay off the list of states sponsoring terrorism, one of the ways to do that would be regime change. By using that expression, that sent a message throughout the region that looked like the United States was implicitly accepting the possibility of an Ethiopian attack. And I hope that was not her intent, but that is how it was interpreted," said Menkhaus.
Former U.S. Ambassador David Shinn says he remains optimistic that both Ethiopia and Eritrea will not start a major conflict in which both sides have much more to lose than gain.
Ambassador Shinn agrees with Ken Menkhaus that Eritrea probably lacks the economic and the military capability to fight a protracted war.
And he says the only way Ethiopia could win the war would be to overthrow the Eritrean government and become a pariah state.
"It would create such a horrific problem in terms of its image with the international community I do not think that Ethiopia could stand that," he said.
Observers also note that should Ethiopia or Eritrea collapse as a result of war, the situation could create a power vacuum in the Horn that draws in outside forces, including terrorist groups.