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Military Buildup Heightens Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Tensions in 2007

By Peter Heinlein
Addis Ababa
17 December 2007

Tensions rose along the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea during the year in advance of a November 30 settlement deadline set by an international boundary commission. At year's end, the Horn of Africa rivals had a combined total of nearly a quarter of a million troops facing each other across the disputed frontier. VOA's Peter Heinlein in Addis Ababa reports the boundary commission deadline passed without incident, but the danger of war remains high.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has repeatedly said his country would not be drawn into a war with arch-rival Eritrea. But speaking to reporters recently, he made one notable exception.

"We will never, ever go to war with Eritrea unless there is a full-scale invasion," said Meles Zenawi. "Not any old provocation. Full-scale invasion. That is the only condition that would force us to fight Eritrea. I don't expect the Eritrean side to carry out full-scale invasion because I think they know it is going to be suicide."

Mr. Meles and Eritrea's President-for-life Isaias Afewerki were once comrades-in-arms. They fought together in a 20-year guerrilla war that eventually overthrew Ethiopia's Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.

But relations between the two former friends deteriorated rapidly after Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Within five years, their countries were embroiled in a border war, with each side claiming the strategically insignificant little town of Badme.

That two-year war claimed 70,000 lives. It ended in December, 2000, with the two sides agreeing to allow an international boundary commission to settle their dispute.

But when the commission two years later handed down its decision, awarding Badme to Eritrea, Ethiopia refused to accept it. After five more years of trying to find a mutually-acceptable settlement, the boundary commission gave up and closed its doors at the end of November, declaring that its 2002 decision was final.

Both Eritrea and Ethiopia had earlier raised objections to the commission's so-called 'virtual demarcation' of the border, based on old maps and satellite data. But when the deadline passed, Eritrea claimed victory, demanding the international community recognize the demarcation as binding. Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles, however, rejected the ruling, arguing that the boundary must be demarcated on the ground.

"As far as the virtual demarcation of the boundary is concerned, I have heard well-respected diplomats and lawyers describe it as 'legal nonsense'," he said. "Our lawyers agree with such characterization. Until the boundary is demarcated on the ground, it is not demarcated."

The Ethiopian leader predicted the December deadline would pass quietly, and it did, amid a flurry of preventive diplomacy aimed at cooling tempers on both sides. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice paid a high-profile visit to Addis Ababa for talks with Mr. Meles.

This diplomatic pressure, however, has not completely eased fears that war could break out along the highly-militarized 900-kilometer border. Political observers say given the personal animosity between the two leaders, and the propaganda war that has polarized public opinion on both sides, bilateral dialogue at this stage seems impossible.

Gebru Asrat fought alongside both Meles and Afwerki in the guerrilla war that toppled the Mengistu regime and led to Eritrea's independence. He later served as governor of the Ethiopian region that borders Eritrea. He worries that some accident, or a mistake in judgment, could plunge the region into another protracted conflict.

"It's a precarious situation," said Gebru Asrat. "They have all mobilized their armies to the borders. Both have huge armies, and maybe if they go crazy, if they are illogical, they might start war, a war that has no objective."

Many western diplomats and observers share Gebru's concern, and fear a war, even an unintended one, could break out in the coming days. They say an Ethiopia emboldened by its close relationship with the United States on fighting terrorism in the Horn of Africa might be tempted to try to crush its much smaller neighbor, which the United States sees as a regional troublemaker.

But a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn, rejects that argument. He says the wrath of the entire international community would come down on whichever side starts a war.

"It's going to be known almost immediately who initiated the attack," said David Shinn. "You simply cannot disguise that, it's not going to happen. If they do that, both sides are going to be crucified by the international community. And in my view even the United States, I don't think even the US could sit by and condone an Ethiopian initiated attack on Eritrea, despite the terrible relations between Eritrea and the United States."

Shinn says international condemnation might not be as effective against Eritrea, which has regularly ignored world opinion. But he says Eritrea's leaders are well aware of Ethiopia's military superiority.

"The fact is they have a very strong and a very powerful and so far disciplined national army that made pretty short work of the Eritreans in 2000 and the Eritreans have not forgotten that," he said.

Even if Ethiopia is comparatively stronger, military analysts say both sides are significantly weaker than they were during the last war. They are already engaged in a proxy war in neighboring Somalia, where thousands of Ethiopian soldiers are tied down supporting Somalia's transitional government against Islamic extremists fighting an Iraq-style insurgency. Ethiopia is also battling an insurrection in the restive Ogaden region.

Ethiopian analyst Medhane Tadesse sees this mutual weakness as an opportunity. While a dialogue among leaderships may impossible, Medhane advocates building what he calls a 'constituency for peace' among intellectuals and influential elements within the Eritrean and Ethiopian diaspora, who are already engaged in a heated debate on the internet.

"I don't want to be pessimistic," said Medhane Tadesse. "What I'm trying to say is it's possible to create a constituency while you manage the conflict. There is no way the two countries can go to war. There is a balance of power between Ethiopia and Eritrea, strangely, based on weakness. So let's use that. At least open other tracks for negotiation."

There are other hopeful avenues. A United Nations official says the world body is actively looking at ways to ease tensions. A small U.N. peacekeeping force remains on the border, at least until its mandate expires at the end of January, and a senior U.N. official is said to be planning a visit to the region soon for consultations. But as 2007 passes to 2008, the rivalry between two old comrades, and the contest for control of a strategically meaningless, but emotionally potent piece of land, remains a dangerous flashpoint.

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