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Urgent need for dialogue after departure of UNMEE, says analyst

[Eritrea] UNMEE peacekeepers.
UNMEE soldiers (IRIN)

Tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea are unlikely to escalate immediately following the departure of UN peacekeepers, but a mechanism should be found to quickly engage the two neighbours, an analyst said.

The Security Council terminated the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) on 31 July.

"The decision is basically a formalisation of the reality because UNMEE has really not been on the ground," Fouad Hikmat, Horn of Africa director for the International Crisis Group (ICG), told IRIN.

Ethiopia and Eritrea have both said a return to conflict is unlikely, but other analysts fear an accidental trigger or clash could ignite the situation, leading to a flare-up in the absence of a buffer.

"Both countries do not want to go to war, but the situation is very sensitive and the troops are close to each other," Hikmat added. "Hopefully the two will now try to engage."

UNMEE has begun removing its equipment and assets, including 320 military personnel, in Ethiopia. "The mission was sent at the request of both countries to keep the peace after a two-year war claimed at least 70,000 Ethiopian and Eritrean lives," UNMEE's acting head Azouz Ennifar, said.

"It was a difficult mission in geographically harsh locations, but the men and women who served ... did not flinch."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon regretted the decision, saying both parties had rejected options for a possible follow-on presence that had been suggested at the request of the Council.

"[The Secretary-General] expresses hope that the parties would be able to break the current stalemate and create conditions necessary for the normalisation of their relations, which is key to peace and stability in the region," he said.

Hikmat called for the appointment of an international envoy to kick-start an engagement between the two. "There is no clear mechanism for engagement at the moment," he told IRIN on 1 August. "A special envoy could energise the process of engagement."


Photo: IRIN
The former UNMEE headquarters in Badme town

Responding to the Council decision, Ethiopia said dialogue was the best way to resolve the stalemate, but added that Eritrea had frustrated UNMEE and retained a “provocative” stance. "Ethiopia has a firm stand that the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea ought to be solved through peaceful means," an information ministry statement said.

Eritrea said UNMEE's termination was "overdue". "UNMEE's presence was really symbolic, it was not a peace enforcement force, it does not have the capability of deterrent - so it's not going to have any impact," spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel told the BBC.

"Legally Ethiopia's occupation of Eritrea is untenable - it cannot be accepted by the international community - I think our focus has been on the legal end and the diplomatic dimensions of the issue," he added.

Border tensions

The two countries fought a bloody war from 1998-2000 over their 1,000km border. A peace accord signed in Algiers in 2000 set up an independent commission to defuse tensions by defining the border.

The commission issued a ruling in 2002 placing Badme, a symbolic border town over which the war had broken out, in Eritrea. Physical demarcation of the commission-defined border on the ground never took place.

Amid rising tensions, a 4,200-strong UN force was deployed to monitor the cessation of hostilities and to help ensure the observance of security commitments by both parties.

But relations between Eritrea and UNMEE deteriorated, forcing an end to military operations. UNMEE helicopter flights were stopped and fuel supplies cut. Without enough fuel, the force found itself unable to transport personnel, generate electricity and refrigerate food or medical supplies.

War risks

In June, the ICG warned that the border impasse carried serious risks of a new war and was a major source of instability in the Horn of Africa, most critically for Somalia.

''The immediate priority is to persuade Ethiopia to withdraw its troops from all land the [border commission] awarded Eritrea and for Eritrea to pull its army back from the TSZ''

"Both regimes have used it as an excuse to enhance their domestic power at the expense of democracy and economic growth, thus reducing the attractiveness to them of diplomatic compromise," it warned in a report, Beyond the Fragile Peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea: Averting New War.

"They support the other's domestic rebels, and each is convinced that the fall of the other's regime is imminent and the only real solution to the border dispute."

ICG called for a virtual demarcation of the border, transformation of UNMEE into a more mobile, faster-reacting tripwire mechanism and the appointment by the UN of a special negotiator to manage an alternative forum for dialogue.

"The immediate priority is to persuade Ethiopia to withdraw its troops from all land the [border commission] awarded Eritrea and for Eritrea to pull its army back from the TSZ [Transitional Security Zone]," the ICG warned.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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