UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
ERITREA: Flight restrictions to affect border monitoring
ASMARA, 7 Oct 2005 (IRIN) - The decision by the Eritrean government to restrict United Nations helicopter flights will significantly reduce the organisation's ability to monitor the situation on the border with neighbouring Ethiopia, the top UN military commander in the region said.
"Our surveillance and monitoring of the border - of the Temporary Security Zone - was dependent to a very large degree on aerial surveillance," Maj-Gen Rajender Singh, commander of the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) peacekeeping force, said.
"[The restrictions] would seriously affect our monitoring capability by anything up to 40 to 45 and maybe even 50 percent," he added.
On Tuesday, Eritrea demanded that all UN helicopters cease using its airspace, prompting fears that the move was an attempt to cover-up military movements and preparations for renewed conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Despite the loss of surveillance capability, Singh said the UN had seen no military build-up by either side.
"As of now, we have not seen any massive build-up on any of the two sides...there has been no build-up," Singh told journalists on Thursday in the Eritrean capital, Asmara.
Other diplomats, however, said both sides appeared to be preparing for possible war. As many as 300,000 Eritreans, out of a population of 3.6 million, were currently doing their national service, and the two countries were buying weapons, they said.
At least 70,000 people are estimated to have been killed when the two neighbours fought over their common border in 1998-2000. Tension has remained high since then.
Singh said UNMEE peacekeepers had been flying up to six aerial reconnaissance flights a day along the 1,100 km border. Ground patrols, he added, had been increased to make up for the loss of helicopter flights, but the compensation would be marginal.
Asked whether Eritrea had given a reason for restricting the helicopter flights, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, Legwaila Joseph Legwaila, - who was also present at the briefing via satellite link from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, - told journalists that Eritrea had told him nothing.
"I think all of us can surmise that maybe one of the reasons is that there is a lot of frustration that there has not been any movement on demarcation," he said.
When the Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities was signed by the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2000 in Algiers, it was agreed that an independent boundary commission would decide where their boundary should lie, and that the decision should be "final and binding".
However, Ethiopia has refused to accept the decision unconditionally, and the border remains undefined.
Legwaila noted that an arms embargo had been placed on both sides during the 1998-2000 border war, but had subsequently been lifted by the international community.
"In May 2001, the arms embargo was lifted, which was almost tantamount to saying 'you can now resume importing weapons'," he said.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed his concern on Wednesday about the effect the flight restrictions would have on UNMEE's operational capacity.
"The Secretary-General joins the [UN] Security Council in calling for the Government of Eritrea to immediately reverse its decision, and for both parties to show maximum restraint," Annan said in a statement.
On 1 October, a bus carrying 61 civilians, including women and children, hit a freshly laid anti-tank mine in the Temporary Security Zone. Six critically injured people, including women aged 23 to 50, were evacuated for treatment by a UNMEE helicopter.
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