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Eritrea on alert for big power bias in border issue


ASMARA, Jan 2, 2005 (Reuters) - In few countries does the Cold War cast a longer shadow than in Eritrea, deprived of nationhood by superpower rivalry at the dawn of independent Africa.


The country, which sits across the Red Sea from oil giant Saudi Arabia, is haunted by its 1950s and 60s role as host of the large U.S. listening post at Asmara's Kagnew Station.


The spy base's forest of antennae intercepted radio, telephone and telegraph traffic around Africa and the Middle East, and also relayed Pentagon communications to U.S. nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean and U.S. forces in Vietnam.


Such was its importance that Washington, worried an emergent Eritrea would come under Soviet influence, arranged for it to be yoked in a federation to U.S. client Ethiopia in 1952.


Emperor Haile Selassie annexed Eritrea in 1962, triggering a guerrilla struggle that ended in Eritrean independence in 1991.


Today Africa's youngest state is determined never again to be pushed around by the big power politics that cost it the estimated 70,000 Eritrean lives lost in the war of independence.




Yet that is exactly the prospect Eritrea says it confronts in a simmering border dispute with neighbouring Ethiopia that was at the heart of a war the two countries fought in 1998-2000.


This time some officials suspect it is the war on terrorism that risks tilting Western concerns in favour of Ethiopia, which has delayed honouring the terms of a 2000 peace treaty.


Ethiopia, sub-Saharan Africa's second most populous nation, is traditionally seen as the main power in the volatile Horn of Africa and a regional linchpin of Washington's war on terror.


The perceived bias rankles in Asmara, stirring bad memories.


"People should not favour bigger Ethiopia over smaller Eritrea. Considerations of big power politics should not affect the maintenance of international law," said Yemane Ghebremeskel, an advisor to President Isayas Afewerki.


"When the majority of African countries were granted independence Eritrea was linked to Ethiopia against the express wishes of the people because of larger interests.


"The international community did nothing. We tell them (other nations) we cannot be wrong twice. History cannot repeat itself. This time around we have gone through the legalities and processes of diplomacy and those issues have to be respected."


Officials in Eritrea suspect concerns of realpolitik lie behind the West's reluctance to punish Ethiopia for its delay in complying with an international settlement of the border row.


"There is always a difference between pronouncements on the rule of international law and real politics, and there are elements of this dichotomy in this case," Ghebremeskel said.


International donors have yet to use their considerable leverage with the aid-dependent country of almost 70 million to persuade it to honour the settlement, Eritrea says.


Ethiopia gets about $2 billion in aid annually including debt relief, food, budget support and development assistance.


"Eritrea is a small country and its interest lies in a peaceful neighbourhood," Ghebremeskel said.


"The problem comes when others bully us, when they try to infringe our rights because they feel they are bigger or stronger. That cannot be acceptable."


African countries worry that tensions between the two nations could trigger a new conflict, destabilising a volatile region that has been used a base by al Qaeda in the past and that continues to suffer drought and famine.


Eritrea insists that Ethiopia accept in full the 2002 ruling by an independent boundary commission set up under the peace treaty to settle the dispute. Eritrea has long accepted the border ruling, which said the prized town of Badme lay in Eritrea, not in Ethiopia which currently holds it.


Ethiopia initially rejected the decision but in November said it finally accepted the ruling in principle.


Ethiopia's surprise announcement added, however, that Addis Ababa wanted dialogue with Asmara on how to implement the ruling in the estimated 15 percent of the border that is contentious.


The statement has been widely interpreted as a call for negotiations over the border's most contentious areas.




Major powers are unanimous in saying reopening negotiations would go against promises both countries made to be bound by the ruling. The European Union has echoed Eritrea's call for Ethiopia to respect the border ruling in full.

Yet aid donors have yet to back their concern with pressure on Ethiopia to honour its obligations, Eritrea says.

Asmara expected that donors would link their help to Ethiopia to progress in peace, as they are required to do as guarantors of the 2000 peace accords, Ghebremeskel said.


"We've called for almost one year now for this kind of linkage. For one reason or another most of the major donors have not taken any meaningful decision that would have persuaded Ethiopia to abide by its international obligations," he said.


"So in reality Ethiopia does not have any incentive to respect its treaty obligation ... A situation of no war, no peace cannot be sustainable for an indefinite period of time." William Maclean