UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
ETHIOPIA-ERITREA: UN mission to continue work despite flight restrictions
ASMARA, 18 Oct 2005 (IRIN) - The United Nations said on Tuesday it would not withdraw its peacekeepers from Eritrea and Ethiopia despite their ability to monitor the two countries' tense border being seriously hampered by a recent ban imposed by Eritrea on UN helicopter flights.
"We are going to stay here and do what we can with the little we have remaining in terms of our resources," Legwaila Joseph Legwaila, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, told a news conference organised by the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE).
"I just don't want anybody to go around saying that UNMEE is about to withdraw from the mission, because we are not about to withdraw," he added.
On Monday, two seriously injured Kenyan peacekeepers could not be air-lifted for immediate treatment due to the flight ban.
The peacekeepers were among three who were injured when their vehicle skidded off a road near Shambiko in the western sector of the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) on the Ethiopia-Eritrea border.
UNMEE said it had requested - but had not received - permission for the two Kenyans to be ferried to the Eritrean capital of Asmara for urgent medical treatment. Instead, they were transported slowly by road because of a serious head injury to one of them.
In New York, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters on Monday the UN would have to reconsider its presence in Ethiopia and Eritrea if the helicopter ban remained in place.
Annan said the UN had "been placed in a situation where the government has not been cooperating and has limited the movements" of troops, and "procedures and operations have been impeded".
If the situation continued, he added, the UN would "have to take some very hard and critical decisions as to the usefulness of staying there if we cannot operate".
The mission has some 3,300 military personnel in the two countries, many of them in the 25-kilometre TSZ, costing millions of dollars a month.
Legwaila said: "All the Secretary-General was saying was that if you make it impossible for a peacekeeping operation to operate why would a peacekeeping operation stay in place if it is not doing the job which it has been invited by the parties to do?"
The Eritrean government banned all UN helicopter flights in its airspace on 5 October.
The UN says it had received no explanation from Eritrea for the restrictions, but diplomats in Asmara said the move was probably prompted by Eritrea's frustration at the international community's continued failure to enforce a "final and binding" decision on the border dispute with Ethiopia.
Legwaila said he had not met with Eritrean President Issayas Afewerki for more than two years.
When the two countries signed a peace agreement at the end of their 1998-2000 border war, they both agreed to demarcate their common boundary as decreed by an independent boundary commission. However, disgreement arose over the 2002 decision, and the region has remained tense ever since.
In September, Eritrea warned the UN that it could rekindle war with Ethiopia if the world body failed to resolve the deadlock. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said on Saturday he had moved more troops to the border since December to prevent any "miscalculation" by Eritrea.
On Monday, the UN said it was regrouping its peacekeepers within the TSZ, effectively closing almost half of the 40 border posts for operational and security reasons.
Following the announcement of the flight ban, UN deminers immediately stopped work in one of the world's most mined areas, as international regulations require that immediate access to treatment be available in the event of an accident.
On 1 October, a bus carrying 61 civilians hit a freshly laid anti-tank mine in the TSZ. Six critically injured people, including women, were evacuated for treatment by an UNMEE helicopter.
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