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UN Troops in Eritrea Move to Capital

The United Nations has instructed its peacekeepers monitoring the Ethiopia-Eritrea border to regroup in the Eritrean capital Asmara. As Derek Kilner reports from Nairobi, the troops had planned to relocate to Ethiopia. But, a U.N. spokesman says that only six vehicles made it across the border to Ethiopia last week.

The U.N. mission, known by the acronym UNMEE, has been monitoring the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea since a 2000 peace agreement ended a conflict between the two sides. The U.N. decided to move its troops earlier this month after Eritrea refused to allow fuel supplies to reach the operation. The mission has also warned it is running low on food.

The Eritrean government is upset with the U.N.'s failure to enforce a border commission's ruling in 2002 that said the town of Badme, at the heart of the border controversy, belongs to Eritrea. Ethiopia has refused to abide by the commission's ruling.

Tensions have grown in recent months with both Ethiopia and Eritrea now maintaining over 100,000 troops along the border. Analyst Richard Cornwell, of South Africa's Institute for Security Studies, says the removal of U.N. troops would eliminate one of the only remaining impediments to renewed conflict.

"UNMEE is now having to think about withdrawal altogether which will take an observation force away from that disputed border so that anything can happen," said Cornwell. "And then claims can be made by both sides that they were in fact the innocent victim. It could be that the Eritreans now intend to provoke things by taking what the international tribunal awarded to them but that the international community has failed to back up."

By most accounts, the border commission's ruling puts the law on Eritrea's side in the territorial dispute. But the Eritrean government's provocative actions, along with its repressive internal policies, have squandered what international goodwill it once had.

Cornwell says the position of Eritrea's President Isaias Afewerki is fueled by domestic political concerns.

"It's a nation in arms," he said. "It has to keep a war psychosis among its people in order to justify the sort of austerity and hardships that they experience in terms of food shortages, economic problems and so on and so forth. He hasn't demobilized the forces that were mobilized at the time of the war against Ethiopia last time.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, meanwhile, faces pressure to maintain a tough line on Eritrea from the opposition, as well as hardliners in his government, many of whom are still angry over the decision to grant Eritrea independence in 1993, following a three-decade insurgency.

The two-year border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea killed some 70,000 people.

In January, the U.N. extended UNMEE's mandate for six months. For the moment, the fate of the troops assembling in Asamara remains unclear.