Ethiopia, Eritrea risk new border war – report

June 17, 2008

“But a minor border incident or miscalculation could produce a disastrous return to conflict,” the report added. “The troops face each other often at less than a football pitch’s distance.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also warned in April that the withdrawal of most of the world body’s 1,700 peacekeepers on the border, following a fuel cutoff by Asmara, risked new hostilities on the 1,000-km (620 mile) frontier.

Asmara says a November 2007 “virtual demarcation” of the border by a now-defunct independent boundary commission has ended the issue, and Ethiopia must pull its troops back from areas designated to Eritrea.

Ethiopia says Eritrea is illegally massing troops on the border in a supposedly demilitarized zone, and it wants to discuss the border demarcation further.

“The departure of the Boundary Commission and the U.N. peacekeepers has made this conflict much more dangerous, removing the means both for dialogue between the parties and for stopping small problems from escalating,” ICG’s Giorgis said.

Some regional diplomats, however, believe that both sides may be restrained by the prospect of world condemnation, their already stretched economies, and the past cost to both nations in terms of human lives and finances.

ICG called on Ethiopia to withdraw soldiers from territory awarded to Eritrea by the boundary commission, on Eritrea to leave the Temporary Security Zone, and on the international community to provide “carrots and sticks” for that.

Both Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki use the border as an excuse to enhance their power and stifle democracy, the report said.

“The stalemate on the border feeds and, in turn, is fed by growing authoritarianism in both states. The ruling regimes rely on military power and restrictions on civil liberties to retain their dominant positions.”

ICG said border tensions were “as high as they have ever been” since the war, with “constant shooting incidents and other tense episodes.”