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Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Tensions Raise New International Alert

An advisory this week from the Brussels-based International Crisis Group is alerting world bodies and governments to stop Ethiopia and Eritrea from sliding back into a protracted border war. Although both sides agreed in Algiers in 2000 to halt their boundary dispute, which flared up in 1998, and abide by rulings of an international commission, tensions have grown since 2002, when Ethiopia blocked physical demarcation of the border and Eritrea blocked UN peacekeepers from carrying out their mission. Crisis Group Vice President Donald Steinberg, who helped negotiate the Algiers treaty as a US diplomat in the Clinton administration, says the international community must warn both countries that they run a real risk of renewed conflict.

“In our mind, it is essential for the United Nations Security Council, the United States, and also the groups that supported the Algiers agreement, including the African Union, to communicate to both parties that it is time to de-escalate the tensions, to communicate to Ethiopia that they must indeed accept the Boundary Commission that ruled mostly in their favor, but also gave the small, very symbolic village of Badme to the Eritreans, and for the Eritreans to allow the United Nations to perform the full functions that they were sent to do,” he said.

Steinberg warned that tensions are brewing along both sides of the border, with increasing numbers of troops pitted perilously close to each other.

“We’ve been deeply concerned about the movement of some four to five-thousand Eritrean troops into the temporary security zone. In addition, we’ve seen some movements from Ethiopia of troops towards the border, in some continuing buildup outside the temporary security zone by the Eritrean forces, such that we now have literally hundreds of thousands of forces facing off against each other. In some cases, we’re looking at a distance between a potential combatant of less than 100 meters,” he warns.

Steinberg adds that Ethiopian threats to withdraw from the Algiers agreement have been disturbing, as have rumors that Addis Ababa may be stirring up internal unrest among groups inside Eritrea to help bring down the Asmara government. At the same time, he notes Eritrea has restricted the movement of about 17-hundred UN peacekeeping troops near the disputed border “such that they’re not able to effectively perform the peacekeeping role that they were sent there to do.”

Steinberg dismisses the notion that Washington’s security ties with Ethiopia due to last December’s intervention in Somalia have effectively given the green light for Addis Ababa to strike at Eritrea, which is said to be harboring Somali opposition forces and lending logistical and possibly military assistance to oust the Ethiopians from Mogadishu.

“The United States government has a really strong interest in peace and stability in the Horn of Africa. Another war along that border would serve no purpose, just as the first war didn’t serve any purpose. And I think that the United States has to communicate this view more clearly to the Ethiopian government, that there would be sanctions should the Ethiopians get involved in anything like a coup attempt within Eritrea. And it has to make it clear at the same time that the United States, as well as other countries, will support in a very strong economic and political way the reconciliation of these two brother states,” he said.

The International Crisis Group report warns that a border showdown could erupt as early as the end of this month, when the international Boundary Commission is expected to finalize the two countries’ border on maps and shut down its operations along the contentious state line.