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ERITREA-ETHIOPIA: UNMEE optimistic about 'stalled' peace process


[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


ADDIS ABABA, 10 Jun 2004 (IRIN) - The peacekeeping force of the United Nations Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia (UNMEE) said on Thursday it remained optimistic about a breakthrough in the stalled peace process between the two countries.

"I think what UNMEE is most concerned about is finding or helping the parties to find a solution to the impasse," the UNMEE spokeswoman, Gail Bindley Taylor Sainte, said. "We have to remain optimistic because we remain here, and as long as we remain here we remain optimistic that things will move ahead."

"The real issues are between the parties and the EEBC [Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission] and that is where things remain. It has to be resolved at that level," she added. "What we can do is assist in some way once we know where we stand, but we have to first see what each side is prepared to do and where there can be compromise."

Sainte, addressing reporters at a weekly video-linked press briefing from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was "very much involved [in the peace process] with letters moving back and forth".

The process has dragged on since a three-year-old peace deal between the two countries hit an impasse over the implementation of a ruling that aimed to resolve the dispute over their common frontier. Since the ruling was announced at a tribunal in The Hague in April 2002, no work has been done on the physical demarcation of the 1,000-km border to implement that decision.

Sainte said UNMEE was looking to a "re-configuration" of its 4,200-strong force in both countries, which costs an estimated US $216 million a year.

She also told reporters that UNMEE was involved in helping Eritreans hit by the current severe drought in the country.

The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on Wednesday said in a statement that Eritrea had been suffering from a drought of such intensity that people had started migrating from one area to another in search of new water sources and pasture for their livestock. It added that the drought had led people to start migrating from Northern and Southern Red Sea and Gash Barka provinces.

Sainte said at the briefing that engineers from the Indian peacekeeping contingent had just opened a dam capable of serving about 3,000 people. "The purpose of that dam is to help with the drought situation," she said, adding that an existing dam could not be used because of siltation. "Hopefully, if the rains come next month, which is what they are hoping, then the dam will fill up," she added.

She also told reporters that the UNMEE force commander, Maj-Gen Robert Gordon, had met Eritrean officials on Thursday in an effort to obtain the lifting of a ban prohibiting UNMEE from using a key supply route. "We are very nervous about the rains, because if the rains come, that will be a major problem for us. We are very concerned about the road being closed when the rains come."

During the briefing, UNMEE also reported that a man had been killed in the border town of Badme after accidentally detonating what was thought to be a grenade left over from the 1998-2000 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Phil Lewis, who heads the UNMEE mine clearance team, said a 24-sq-km minefield was located near the town – the site of heavy fighting during the war.

"This suspected grenade that killed the man is simply part of the debris from the battles that were conducted in that area," he noted.