Tensions persist over disputed Eritrea-Ethiopia border
The Associated Press
Published: December 12, 2007
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia: Isayas Gabriel was there as tens of thousands of fellow soldiers were cut down during Ethiopia's last war with Eritrea, a 2 1/2 year bloodbath over a seemingly insignificant border town called Badme.
Seven years after the war's official end, he is watching as the countries appear to be gearing up for Round 2.
An international commission charged with marking out the border essentially threw up its hands recently and ended its work with no formal demarcation, evidence of how stubbornly both sides have resisted mediation. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group said last month that the threat of war is "very real," and "just weeks away." An estimated 225,000 troops face off across a tense buffer zone.
The implications stretch far beyond Eritrea, a Red Sea nation of 5 million, and Ethiopia, Africa's second most populous country with some 77 million people.
"You cannot separate the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict from what is happening in Somalia, Sudan and even the Middle East," said Medhane Tadesse, a political analyst in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. "This is not just a small, low-key conflict. It's a large-scale military confrontation."
The West has long been concerned that the Horn of Africa could become a breeding ground for al-Qaida. Osama bin Laden's terror group already has claimed responsibility for several attacks in the region, including the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 225 people. Further instability created by war could create further opportunity for extremists.
The United States looks to Ethiopia to help fight the war on terror in East Africa. Meanwhile, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is preparing a case to designate Eritrea a "state sponsor of terrorism" for its alleged support of Islamic extremists in Somalia.
Experts say Ethiopia and Eritrea are using largely lawless Somalia as a proxy battleground.
Ethiopia sent military support to Somalia last year to drive a radical Islamic group from power, and now is fighting alongside Somali government troops beset by remnants of the Islamic force waging an Iraq-style insurgency.
The leaders of the Somali Islamic group are based in the Eritrean capital, Asmara. U.N. arms experts accuse Eritrea of secretly supplying huge quantities of arms — including surface-to-air missiles and suicide belts — to Somali insurgents.
Bulcha Demeksa, an opposition parliamentarian, said Ethiopia cannot fight in Somalia and Eritrea simultaneously.
"It is not just soldiers, it is everything," he said. "Logistics, citizens' support, young men's commitment. We cannot do that."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who traveled to Addis Ababa this month for crisis talks with some of Africa's most unstable states, urged Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to maintain calm.
"There must not be a resumption of hostilities initiated by either side," Rice said.
Still, there has been an "alarming" military buildup along the border over the past few months, with an estimated 100,000 Ethiopian troops facing off with some 125,000 Eritrean troops, according to the International Crisis Group.
Once part of Ethiopia, Eritrea fought a 30-year guerrilla war that ultimately led to a referendum and independence in 1993. But the countries still disagreed over currency and trade issues, and both laid claim to several border regions, including Badme.
Eritrean soldiers entered the dusty border town in 1998, sparking the war. Eritrea's agricultural economy — with some 70 percent of the population involved in farming and herding — was devastated, and both armies suffered massive casualties.
"Both believe that sovereignty over Badme is symbolically vital, even if of little intrinsic economic value," the International Crisis Group said. "Whoever finally owns that village will be able to claim victory and justify the war's enormous sacrifices."
After the war ended, the international Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission gave the town to Eritrea, but Ethiopia has not conceded the town.
Late last month, the panel ended its work after both countries failed to allow it to physically mark out the border, formally granting Badme to Eritrea. The panel said it considers its work done, and that Badme belongs to Eritrea.
Minelik Alemu of the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the decision is "is ill-advised, to put it mildly."
Eritrea, meanwhile, considers the ruling a victory.
Isayas, who fought in the 1998-200 war, is sober, but also boastful.
"Since I have witnessed war firsthand, I know exactly its extent of destruction," he said. "If war breaks out, it will be the end of the regime in Eritrea."
The Eritreans, however, beg to differ.
"If Ethiopia starts a war they will be crushed and that will be the end of their history," Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu said.
Kolelech Alemu, a 52-year-old school nurse in Addis Ababa, is dreading the prospect of a new war.
"Both sides must do whatever is required to avoid war from breaking out," she said. "I have lost some family members in the past war and I know exactly how painful it was. I don't want more of that to happen."