United Nations is set to begin withdrawing peacekeeping forces from Eritrea as early as Wednesday. Sources close to the U.N. Mission say the troops will be relocated to the Ethiopian side of the two countries' disputed border. From the Ethiopian frontier town of Zelanbessa, VOA's Peter Heinlein reports the imminent pullout has heightened tensions in an area recovering from an earlier war that prompted the dispatch of the U.N. peacekeepers.
A spokesman for the U.N. Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) says the withdrawal of the force of approximately 1,400 troops will probably take several weeks.
It will also involve relocation of the UNMEE offices in the Eritrean capital, Asmara to the Ethiopian town of Mekele, about 120 kilometers from the border.
An assessment team from U.N. headquarters in New York visited the tense frontier region around Zelanbesa over the past few days. The team flew home Monday and was to immediately present its recommendations to the world body's top leadership.
What U.N. officials refer to as a "temporary relocation" became necessary after Eritrean officials severely restricted fuel supplies to the mostly Indian, Jordanian and Kenyan peacekeepers in December.
When Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon attended the African Union summit in Addis Ababa two weeks ago, he urged Eritrea to re-open the supply lines.
"I am deeply concerned about implications of latest restrictions imposed by Eritrea on our peacekeepers," he said. "This is having a crippling effect on the ability of the mission to discharge its mandate. I appeal to Eritrea to lift all restrictions that affect the activities of the peacekeeping mission."
The last Ethiopia-Eritrea border war from 1998 to 2000 killed an estimated 70,000 people. The agreement that halted the fighting set up a 25-kilometer wide security zone where most of the U.N. peacekeepers are stationed. Almost all of that is on the Eritrean side of the border.
Here in the Ethiopian town of Zelanbesa, just outside the unmarked border and within sight of the UNMEE camp, residents are nervous. Tesfaye Zewde, 52, has lived in Zelanbesa all his life. Speaking through an interpreter, he says people here believe the relocation of U.N. peacekeepers pushes them another step closer to a resumption of war.
ZEWDE: "If the relocation is going to take place, we are worried. We are in fear of that. We are not sleeping."
HEINLEIN: "What's the fear?"
ZEWDE: "War is going to erupt. If the UNMEE is here, it will be secure. But if they are not here, war is going to take place. We are the first victims in this town. We are in fear of that. We are not sleeping well at night."
It used to be that the blue helmeted UNMEE troops were in between the positions of the Ethiopian troops at the edge of the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ), and the Eritrean troops, who moved in and occupied much of the TSZ. But now the Eritrean troops have moved past the UN positions and are standing on the hilltops overlooking the Ethiopian positions right on the edge of the Temporary Security Zone.
The convoy of UNMEE trucks moving through the checkpoint on the edge of the security zone are going from Ethiopia into Eritrea today. They are empty. The question on people's minds is, "Will they bring peacekeeping troops and equipment to Ethiopia when they return?"
With the Eritrean forces now occupying hilltops that were until recently no-man's land, there is a sense along the frontier here that something will have to give. The presence of the U.N. peacekeepers has helped to ensure there is no war, even if there is no peace. Now, the equation is changing.