The UN Secretary-General is “very, very concerned” about the simmering conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, UN Special Envoy for Africa Mohamed Sahnoun, speaking from New York, told IRIN on Wednesday.
The two men met in Geneva yesterday (Tuesday). Sahnoun was formally assigned by Secretary-General Kofi Annan on 15 January to support diplomatic efforts to resolve the eight-month Horn of Africa border dispute.
Sahnoun said he would spend time being briefed on the situation - including a meeting with US facilitator Anthony Lake - before deciding his next move. “I am in contact with Asmara and Addis Ababa,” he said, but declined to comment further on the situation.
Since border clashes and air raids erupted in May and June 1998, the two countries have been involved in heavily reinforcing their frontiers, recruiting troops and importing weapons and aircraft, news reports say.
Large scale voluntary and involuntary conflict-related population movements have left hundreds of thousands of people displaced. Apart from occasional contained artillery exchanges, an uneasy truce has ensued.
The US State Department on Friday authorised the voluntary departure of US embassy families from Eritrea and Ethiopia “in response to the continued build-up of troops and equipment along the border”. Diplomatic sources said embassies in Addis Ababa were reviewing their security arrangements in response to increased tension.
France has strengthened its forces in the Red Sea port state of Djibouti, AFP reported Friday, sending a squadron of Mirage fighters and an anti-aircraft destroyer to the area. A second meeting of church leaders from the two countries was set to take place in Germany last weekend, an Eritrean newsletter ENIC, reports, but no progress was announced.
The Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has said “we feel we have come to the end of the road, and the configuration of forces for peace and war is shifting in favour of war.” As diplomatic moves continue from several directions, Meles Zenawi’s 13 January statement also rejected any “new creative package”.
Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi visited Eritrea at the weekend and issued a joint statement with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. The surprise move came as the UN Security Council, the Whitehouse and a variety of other nations urged restraint on both Ethiopia and Eritrea. Moi had met Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi at the Burundi summit in Arusha on Saturday and “appealed to him for restraint”. AFP reports that Moi is set to visit Addis Ababa tomorrow (Thursday).
An OAU framework proposal dated 8 November has been accepted by Ethiopia (after “relevant clarifications”), but Eritrea “is awaiting specific answers” on a number of matters, according to the joint Kenya-Eritrea communique.
Diplomats say the restoration of Ethiopian administration in the disputed Badme area and the issue of troop deployment remain the sticking point.
The OAU is due to respond to Eritrea’s questions soon. A diplomatic source told IRIN the reply awaits only the approval of Burkina Faso, which holds the OAU presidency. Eritrea spelled out its reservations clear in a document dated 12 December which says that “Eritrea recognizes the positive elements” in the OAU framework, but states that they are “overshadowed by other contradictory proposals”.
Sahnoun was among the signatories of an open letter to the two leaders published in the ‘International Herald Tribune’ last month. The letter, signed by a wide range of African leaders and personalities, said “we find it very hard to believe or accept that the present stalemate - unwanted, undesirable or complex as it may be - is worth it or would evenb remotely justify the stagering human costs and sacrifice that it would entail.”
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