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Ethiopia / Eritrea War

When Eritrea, formally a province of Ethiopia, gained its independence in 1993, after a long guerrilla war, parts of the border was never fixed with maps and surveying markers. It has always been in dispute, but a war broke out in May 1998 in a dispute about the exact location of their border. Ethiopia and Eritrea are fighting over an inconsequential piece of real estate. But it is highly charged with symbolism as the two nations sort out their relationship after a 20-year war that ended with Eritrea breaking off from the larger nation.

The war between Ethiopia and Eritrea has echoes of World War One in its bloody stalemate and trench warfare. Tens of thousands of people have been killed. The fighting has been going on, with some interruptions, for the better part of two years, and involves relatively sophisticated weaponry. Each side has some jet fighters that have attacked the other, and US television regularly shows long-range artillery of the two armies pounding each other. The border war has claimed the lives of an estimated 40-thousand soldiers, and has dragged down the economies of both countries. More than 300-thousand troops remain dug-in and deadlocked along an 800-kilometer front. All civilians in the area have fled, leaving the armies to fight over empty villages. A peace plan brokered by the Organization of African Unity has failed to stop the conflict, which is affecting the entire Horn of Africa.

Eritrean separatism had its roots in World War II. In 1941, in the Battle of Keren, the Allies drove Italian forces out of Eritrea, which had been under Italy's rule since the end of the nineteenth century. Administration of the region was then entrusted to the British military until its fate could be determined by the Allies. Britain, however, sought to divide Eritrea along religious lines, giving the coast and highland areas to Ethiopia and the Muslim-inhabited northern and western lowlands to British-ruled Sudan. In 1952 the United Nations (UN) tried to satisfy the demand for self-determination by creating an EritreanEthiopian federation. In 1962, however, Haile Selassie unilaterally abolished the federation and imposed imperial rule throughout Eritrea. In January 1974, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) handed Haile Selassie's forces a crushing defeat at Asmera, severely affecting the army's morale and exposing the crown's ever-weakening position.

On 29 May 1991, ISAIAS Afworki, secretary general of the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), which then served as the country's legislative body, announced the formation of the Provisional Government in Eritrea (PGE). Eritrea became an independent state on 24 May 1993, following an internationally monitored referendum in which citizens voted overwhelmingly for independence from Ethiopia. The Eritrean People's Liberation Front, which led the 30-year war for independence, has controlled the country since it defeated Ethiopian armed forces in 1991. With independence from Ethiopia on 24 May 1993, Eritrea faced the bitter economic problem of a small, desperately poor African country. The economy is largely based on subsistence agriculture, with over 70% of the population involved in farming and herding. The 30-year war for independence from Ethiopian rule left some 30 perccnt of all Eritrean households headed by women. Approximately 200 persons were injured or killed during 1998 in incidents involving unexploded ordinances including land mines. There are an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 land mines in the country, mostly laid by Ethiopia during the 1961-1991 war in which Eritrea fought for independence.

In May 1998 fighting broke out between Eritrean armed forces and Ethiopian militia along the border, in response to the movement of Eritrean forces into territory previously administered by Ethiopia. Eritrea responded to an escalating military conflict by calling up reserves and increasing its armed forces to approximately 100,000 to 120,000 soldiers. Eritrea and Ethiopia exchanged artillery fire and engaged in air attacks leading to numerous civilian casualties. In June 1998 Eritrean forces bombed the Ethiopian town of Mekele and killed 47 civilians, including children. In June 1998 and again in November 1998, Eritrean forces fired artillery shells at the Ethiopian town of Adrigat, killing six persons and wounding several others. By the end of 1998 approximately 250,000 Eritreans had been internally displaced as a result of the conflict with Ethiopia. At the outbreak of the war, Ethiopia detained and deported Eritreans and Ethiopian citizens of Eritrean origin. By the end of 1998, a total of 45,000 such persons of an estimated total population of up to 400,000 had left Ethiopia for Eritrea; the vast majority were deported. The nationality of Eritrean-origin Ethiopians had never been settled since the independence of Eritrea in 1993.

The heaviest fighting of 1999 came in February, when Ethiopia made a push to take the border town of Badame. Troops backed by jet fighters, tanks, and heavy artillery attacked Eritrean positions. Casualties were high, the dry, rocky terrain offering little cover, but Ethiopia did recapture the town. In March, there were more battles around the town of Zalambesa, but no clear winner.

Despite the massive weapons build-up, the fortified trenches, the harsh rhetoric, both countries insist they did not want this war, and each country blames the other for continuing it. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says his country wants peace, but accuses Eritrea of acting irrationally. Eritrea's president, Isays Afeworki, says Ethiopia is continuing the war to humiliate the Eritreans.

Regional groups have tried to mediate an end to the conflict. The Organization of African Unity spent months drawing up a peace plan, and negotiators shuttled between Addis Ababa and Asmara trying to persuade the two governments to agree to its terms. The OAU plan calls for both sides to pull back their troops, with international monitors controlling the disputed areas while a border commission draws up a new map.

At first it was Eritrea which rejected the accord, saying it did not want to withdraw from any territory. But shortly after the fighting at Badame, Eritrea said it would accept the OAU plan, and negotiators turned their attention to getting both countries to agree to a cease-fire. That ceasefire never happened. Minor skirmishes continue on the border, and each country accuses the other of using foreign mercenaries and mistreating refugees.

In September 1999, Ethiopia withdrew its support for the OAU plan. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said there could be no agreement unless land administered by Ethiopia before the outbreak of the war was returned to its control.

With the OAU plan on hold, and Ethiopian and Eritrean forces stalemated on the front, the conflict has spread into neighboring countries. Fighters from the Ethiopian rebel group, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), based themselves in parts of Somalia controlled by faction leader Hussein Aideed. Eritrea helped supply Mr. Aideed's fighters with weapons and training, and the OLF made raids on Ethiopia from their Somali bases. In retaliation, Ethiopia earlier this year sent some of its forces into southern Somalia to support groups hostile to Mr. Aideed.

In November 1999, the Ethiopian government and Mr. Aideed made a deal. He agreed to force the OLF out of Somalia, and Ethiopia agreed to withdraw its troops. The OLF has shut its office in Mogadishu, but there is some question as to whether it has actually disbanded and left Somalia.

The Eritrean Islamic Salvation (EIS), a small Sudan-based insurgent group, has mounted terrorist attacks in north and west Eritrea since 1993. Both Eritrea and Ethiopia have been critical of Islamic groups from Sudan, but the war with Eritrea has prompted Ethiopia to mend its relations with the government in Khartoum. Eritrea has condemned the new alliance, saying Ethiopia is encouraging opponents to the current Asmara government who operate out of Sudan.

Experts say perhaps the most damaging aspect of the war is the devastation it is causing to the economies of the two countries. As of early 1998 some 67 percent of Eritrea's external trade was with Ethiopia. The end of the use of the Ethiopian Birr note and the introduction of the new Eritrean currency "Nakfa" at the end of 1997r was a deliberate decision by the Eritrean leadership to take charge of their own monetary policy. Food purchases are a serious drain on Eritrea's limited foreign exchange reserves. Eritrea requires 600,000 to one million metric tons of cereal grains annually. In a good year, Eritrea is able to meet nearly one fourth of its food needs; imports from Ethiopia fill much of the rest of the shortfall.

Refugees from both countries are flooding into cities, trade is down, and military expenditures are up. But for now it appears both countries are determined to continue the war despite the costs.

The most recent fighting resumed on 11 May 2000 when the Ethiopian forces made a major advance and captured a key border town inside what was considered to be Eritrean territory.

In May 2000 Washington suggested a full arms embargo on the two countries, in the hope of starving their arsenals. Russia and China are skeptical of sanctions. Russia has urged continued diplomacy, which hasn't worked. Because Ethiopia rejected a UN deadline to resume peace talks, the United States would, as part of the sanctions, ban Ethiopian government officials from traveling outside their country. Eritrea accepted the UN offer, but whether that was out of a genuine desire to end the fighting or the need to buy time after recent setbacks is hard to say. A peace agreement was signed on December 12, 2000 between Ethiopia and Eritrea putting an end to their two-year border war.

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