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ERITREA: UN disappointed about re-closure of vital supply road

ADDIS ABABA, 8 Sep 2004 (IRIN) - The United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) expressed disappointment on Tuesday after the Eritrean government reimposed restrictions of movement along a crucial supply route for its peacekeepers.

UNMEE said it had received a letter from the Eritrean authorities saying they could no longer use the Asmara-Keren-Barentu road. Deputy spokesman George Somerwill said the road had been closed for unknown reasons, considerably hampering the work of the peacekeepers.

"I would not necessarily call it unfair. I would just say that it simply is a situation which makes our work considerably harder," Somerwill said on Tuesday.

The closure means key supplies to peacekeeping troops in western Eritrea would take an extra 10 to 12 hours to deliver. UNMEE might need to resort to using helicopters, the spokesman told IRIN.

UNMEE arrived in Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2000 to help monitor a ceasefire between the two countries after their two-and-a-half-year border war, which is estimated to have claimed 70,000 lives. Around 4,000 peacekeepers and civilian staff monitor a 25-kilometre buffer zone that separates the two countries.

"We are here to keep the peace, basically," Somerwill added. "We are here for the two governments so I think if our lives are made harder then our work is made more difficult. In the end it is the two peoples who are going to suffer; the people of Ethiopia and the people of Eritrea."

The restriction on using the supply road – which was imposed in March – had been lifted last month after high-level interventions and calls from the UN Security Council.

UNMEE insisted despite the closure that its relationship with the Eritrean authorities would not be harmed. "UNMEE will continue to maintain as positive a relationship as it can with both parties as we have done in the past, but it is nevertheless disappointing that this has happened," the spokesman said.

Later this month the 15-strong UN Security Council is expected to meet in New York to discuss the renewal of UNMEE’s six-monthly mandate.

The ceasefire between the two countries was reached under a peace deal signed in Algiers in December 2000 where they agreed to set up an independent boundary commission to end tensions over their 1,000-km frontier. The ruling by the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission was rejected by Ethiopia as flawed.

Its main contention was that the Ethiopian-administered town of Badme – where the May 1998 war first flared up – had been awarded to Eritrea. Last year, the commission announced it was suspending its work. Eritrea argues that demarcation should start, but no date has been set.