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PM Meles: Ethiopia Prepared for War, Wants Peace With Eritrea

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says his country is prepared for a possible war with neighboring Eritrea, and warned that an invasion by Eritrea would lead to that country's destruction. His comments came three days before a deadline for demarcating their common border. As VOA's Peter Heinlein reports from Addis Ababa, Mr. Meles also acknowledged that Ethiopia is bogged down in another conflict in Somalia.

Speaking in parliament, the Ethiopian leader fired another salvo in the verbal battle with Eritrea over their disputed border. The two sides have been trading barbs and flexing military muscles in the weeks before a boundary commission appointed to settle the dispute is set to go out of existence.

The boundary commission was formed after the Horn of Africa rivals fought a border war that killed 70,000 people in the late 1990s. Three days before the commission's mandate is to expire, Mr. Meles said Ethiopia has no plans to resume the fighting, and wants a negotiated settlement. But, speaking in Amharic, he suggested that if war breaks out, Ethiopian troops would take the fight all the way to the Eritrean capital, Asmara.

He said if Eritrea invades, Ethiopia would have to take action to make sure there is no third war.

Mr. Meles said Ethiopia has boosted its defense budget to nearly $390 million per year in preparation for an Eritrean invasion. Eritrea, for its part, has repeatedly accused Ethiopia of plotting to attack.

The United States and the United Nations have urged both countries to show restraint ahead of the November 30 deadline.

Prime Minister Meles's harsh words contrasted sharply with his gloomy assessment of Ethiopia's involvement in another neighbor, Somalia. Ethiopia sent thousands of troops to help Somalia's transitional government oust Islamic extremists from Mogadishu last December.

Nearly a year later, Mr. Meles admits that his hopes of bringing the troops home quickly were unrealistic.

He says operations in Somalia have taken longer than hoped, and the international community has not organized a peacekeeping operation as he expected.

He accused Eritrea of backing Somali rebels in order to keep Ethiopia from sending more troops north to the Eritrean border.

Mr. Meles also pledged to continue military operations on a third front, by battling separatist rebels in the restive Ogaden region. Earlier this month, the rebels accused government troops of targeting civilians with helicopter gunships. The government denied the charges, but admitted that the anti-insurgency campaign had intensified.

The crackdown was launched earlier this year after rebels of the Ogaden National Liberation Front attacked a Chinese-run oil operation, killing more than 70 people.

Mr. Meles's comments came as the top United Nations emergency relief official toured the Ogaden. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes scheduled the visit to inspect relief operations that began a few weeks ago.

Ethiopia expelled several aid agencies from the Ogaden earlier this year, including the International Committee of the Red Cross. But the government allowed 19 agencies to return this month, and began massive food aid shipments to the region after the United Nations estimated that 950,000 people were in need of assistance.