Ethiopia's leader is predicting that a deadline for marking the disputed border with rival Eritrea will pass without incident. Tensions along the frontier have been high in recent weeks with both sides massing troops in anticipation of a resumption of the border war the two countries fought from 1998 to 2000. VOA's Peter Heinlein reports from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
The Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission established as part of the agreement that ended the two countries' last war seven years ago is set to go out of existence Friday. After years of unsuccessfully trying to broker a mutually acceptable agreement, the commission announced it was giving up, and would arbitrarily set the boundary according to geographical coordinates it laid out in 2002. The concept is called 'virtual demarcation'.
*Both sides initially rejected the virtual demarcation ruling. But on Friday, a source close to the commission said a letter had been received from the Eritrean government saying it does accept the coordinates as set out by the commission in 2002. Legal scholars and diplomats say while the boundary commission's decision may be correct, it is less than helpful. Days before the commission's self-imposed expiration date, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi described virtual demarcation as 'nonsense'.
"As far as the virtual demarcation of the boundary is concerned, I have heard well-respected diplomats and lawyers describe it as 'legal nonsense'," he said. "Our lawyers agree with such characterization. Until the boundary is demarcated on the ground, it is not demarcated. As soon as it is demarcated, there will be relocation of administrations, police and so forth. But not before that. Only after actual demarcation on the ground. And we prefer to engage the Eritrean side in pushing forwards toward demarcation."
Mr. Meles suggested he would not be unhappy to see the boundary commission go out of existence, and told VOA Ethiopia would not be drawn into a war with its arch rival unless Eritrea launches a full-blown military attack.
"We will never, ever go to war with Eritrea unless there is a full-scale invasion," he said. "Not any old provocation. Full-scale invasion. That is the only condition that would force us to fight Eritrea. I don't expect the Eritrean side to carry out full-scale invasion because I think they know it is going to be suicide. So I'm very confident the deadline the boundary commission has set for itself is going to pass like any of those days that have passed since the beginning of the millennium."
With tensions rising, the United Nations and other concerned parties, including the Unitded States, have urged both nations to show restraint. The message is being underlined by flurry of visits to the region by high-ranking officials.
U.N. Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes was in Addis Ababa this week for talks on the subject with Prime Minister Meles. The United States sent its top development aid official, USAID Administrator Henrietta Fore, and has scheduled a visit next week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. A couple Congressional delegations are also stopping by, prompting Eritrea to accuse the United States of siding with Ethiopia in the dispute.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a report earlier this month that the two sides had each moved more than 100,000 troops close to their 900-kilometer-long border. The world body has a 1,700-strong peacekeeping force monitoring a security buffer zone along the frontier, but officials admit the force would be woefully inadequate in the event of any outbreak of hostilities.
*updated 30 Nov 07