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Ethiopia Vows to Give Disputed Badme Town to Eritrea

FILE - Ethiopian soldiers check for landmines on a road leading to the border town of Badme, Nov. 5, 2008.
FILE - Ethiopian soldiers check for landmines on a road leading to the border town of Badme, Nov. 5, 2008.

Ethiopia will give a long-disputed swath of land to Eritrea, the government announced Tuesday.

The executive committee of the EPRDF, Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, said that it would adhere to the terms of the Algiers Agreement, which resulted in a definitive ruling on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The international community backed the ruling, finalized in 2002, and both sides agreed to a U.N. boundary commission’s terms.

But Ethiopia prevented demarcation of the border, resulting in 16 years of unresolved tension — and occasional open conflict — between the East African neighbors.

The EPRDF said its decision Tuesday came after “reviewing the current Ethio-Eritrea situation” and deciding “to maintain peace between people of the two countries.”

The Algiers Agreement, signed in 2000, followed a lengthy and bloody border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. When the war ended, a boundary commission spent several years delimiting a border between the two countries. Their decision reflected the two countries’ respective claims, along with colonial-era maps from the early 1900s.

Ethiopia and Eritrea disputed nearly three-fourths of the border defined by the commission, and the town of Badme in the west became a major flash point. The commission awarded it to Eritrea, but Ethiopia refused to cede it and surrounding land.

This wasn’t the first time Ethiopia said it had accepted the decision, Lea Brilmayer, a professor of international law at Yale Law School, told VOA by phone. Brilmayer was lead counsel for Eritrea on the commission and worked on attempts to implement the ruling.

“It’s impossible to know what the intent is,” she said. “If the statement was made in good faith and they implement it, that would be great.”

Eritrea and Ethiopia share a complicated history. Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after a 30-year war, and it won international recognition in 1993. Before the war for independence, Eritrea had been colonized by Italy and made part of Ethiopia’s federation.

The Eritrean government has often cited the border issue and what it calls a state of “no peace, no war” as justification for mandatory, indefinite national service.

In 2013, the late Eritrean Ambassador Girma Asmerom said, “If Ethiopia withdraws its army from occupied sovereign Eritrean territory, including the town of Badme, in the morning, dialogue between the two countries will start in the afternoon.”

Adhering to the Algiers Agreement would not be complicated, Brilmayer said. “It’s relatively straightforward to withdraw Ethiopian forces,” she said, adding, there’s “nothing for Eritrea to do” to follow through on the boundary commission’s ruling.

Brilmayer said Ethiopia’s decision, if put into action, is an important development. “Countries need to know they can count on one another to comply with the obligations they’ve assumed,” she said.