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Border war with Ethiopia (1998-2000)

After independence, the sovereignty over many areas along the 1,000-kilometer border between Eritrea and Ethiopia was never officially determined. This had led to occasional skirmishes between the two armies in several locations. One such place was Badme, a western border locality that had passed under EPLF control in November 1977. According to several historical sources, on 6 May 1998 Ethiopian troops shot Eritrean soldiers near Badme. This incident provoked a heavy military response from Eritrea, soon matched by Ethiopia, which quickly escalated into war.

This was not the first time Eritrea had experienced a border dispute with one of its neighbours. On two occasions before it had disputes with Yemen regarding the Red Sea. The first, concerning Yemeni fishing in Eritrea waters, was settled by an agreement on 14 November 1994. The second – about the sovereignty over the Hanish Islands, equidistant between the coasts of the two countries – led to a three-day war from 15 to 17 December 1995 and the subsequent occupation of the Islands by Eritrean forces. Diplomatic resolution of the conflict having failed, the case was brought to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which, after two years of proceedings, concluded that the Islands should be under shared sovereignty. Both countries accepted the ruling.

Similar to the disputes with Yemen, the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia reflected deep-seated political differences and economic and political competition for markets and influence in the region. When the war for independence ended in 1991, anti-Ethiopian feeling led to tens of thousands of captured Ethiopians soldiers and an estimated 30,000 of their wives and children, many of whom were Eritrean, being expelled into Ethiopia. At the same time, the Governments in Asmara and in Addis Ababa, bound by ties developed during the armed struggle when the EPLF supported the TPLF to seize power in Ethiopia, developed good relations.

Eritrea renounced its claim to war reparations, and trade agreements with Ethiopia were concluded in 1992. Eritrea initially continued to use the Ethiopian currency Birr, opened its markets to Ethiopian companies and recognised Assab as a “free port”. However, conflicts over land, taxes on trade, monetary policy and the adoption in November 1997 of an Eritrean national currency, the Nakfa, led to further tensions between the two neighbors.

The 1998 war developed in three phases. The first phase saw Eritrean troops seize control over virtually all the disputed territory around Badme and on the Assab road. At the end of May 1998, a team of mediators which included Rwanda and the United States presented a proposal to the belligerents which invited them to redeploy their forces to positions held prior to 6 May – the day of the initial incident – in order to allow investigations and an agreement to demarcate the disputed border.

Eritrea rejected the proposition on 3 June, and intense fighting resumed until early February 1999. Several diplomatic initiatives to resolve the conflict failed in short order. By the end of February Ethiopia had retaken Badme and much of the disputed territory. On 27th February, Eritrea announced that it was ready to accept the OAU Peace Framework proposal, but Ethiopia refused and resumed its assault on Eritrean positions.

The last phase of the war started in May 2000 when Ethiopia opened a military offensive on three fronts: west of Badme; near Zalambessa; and close to Assab following which Ethiopian troops broke through Eritrean defences and, by mid-June, occupied the disputed territory and large parts of Eritrea. On 19 June, the two countries signed a cessation of hostilities before a peace agreement was reached on 12 December 2000, in Algiers. The Algiers Peace Agreement established a 25-kilometer-wide Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) on the Eritrean side of the disputed border, to be monitored by the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), which was created by the United Nations Security Council in July 2000. The Algiers Agreement provided for the creation of a joint Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) under the auspices of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, with a view to issuing a definitive ruling on the demarcation of the border between the two countries.

Outnumbered and outspent, Eritrea suffered an enormous loss of economic resources and human lives. By the end of the conflict a couple of years later Eritrea’s economy was crippled and nearly a third of the population was dependent on food aid. The President, who had defiantly boasted about Eritrea’s self-reliant stance, was quick to negotiate deals for famine relief with the international community.

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