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UN chief flies into Eritrea amidst fears of renewed border war 


LONDON, July 03, 2004 (Financial Times) -- When the United Nations sent peacekeepers to Ethiopia and Eritrea four years ago, the mission was heralded as a rare chance for success in a continent beset by complex, often intractable, conflicts.

There were no warlords or drugged-crazed child soldiers to deal with, just two disciplined armies belonging to sovereign states that had signed internationally brokered accords to end a brutal 30-month border war costing more than 70,000 lives. Bill Clinton, the former US president, hailed both leaders as being among a new generation of more pragmatic African politicians, and western nations were quick to provide troops.

But as Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general, flies into Eritrea today, the peace process is deadlocked, with neither Horn of Africa nation willing to compromise on a key pillar of the accords - the demarcation of their disputed 1,000km boundary.

Mr Annan is scheduled to hold talks with Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki before flying to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, where he will meet Meles Zenawi, the prime minister. He will push the sides to compromise and move forward. But the signs do not look good.

Relations between the two countries have not improved since the war erupted in May 1998, and both are believed to be buying weapons, diplomats say.

Frustrated with the parties' intransigence, as well as the operation's mounting costs, the Security Council has asked Mr Annan to seek ways to streamline the $200m-a-year UN mission, Unmee, before its mandate comes up for renewal in September.

"Everything is in suspense," said Legwaila Joseph Legwaila, Mr Annan's special representative to Ethiopia and Eritrea. "You can't see light at the end of the tunnel when there is no light at the end of the tunnel."

The concern among diplomats and UN officials is that the longer the stalemate continues the greater the chance that a minor border skirmish could escalate into a new war. "That cannot be ruled out," Mr Legwaila told the Financial Times.

The peace process has been stalled since an international boundary commission delivered its ruling on the border in April, 2002, awarding the town of Badme - the war's flashpoint - to Eritrea. Badme was administered by Ethiopia before the war.

The 4,200 peacekeepers deployed in a buffer zone along the border are supposed to be in place until the boundary is physically demarcated. But that process has been suspended indefinitely.

Ethiopia has refused to accept the commission's ruling as it stands - although both parties agreed that its findings would be final and binding - and says it wants dialogue with its neighbour. But Eritrea refuses to open negotiations, arguing the border must first be demarcated and the international community should force Ethiopia to accept the commission's decision.

Western nations, however, appear reluctant to intervene, describing the impasse as a bilateral problem as they shift their focus in Africa to the crisis in western Sudan. Many diplomats believe Eritrea has the moral high ground on the issue of the boundary commission's ruling. Ethiopia, however, has far better relations with the international community, partly because of the country's strategic importance, but also because Mr Afwerki is increasingly being seen as a belligerent autocrat.

Earlier this year, he refused to meet UN special envoy Lloyd Axworthy, and he has not met Mr Legwaila for 18 months. Eritrea's government has also faced strong criticism for its human rights record. In 2001, the nation's fledgling private newspapers were shut down, while journalists and critics were rounded up and imprisoned without charge.

In contrast, Mr Zenawi, regarded as a key ally in the US-led war on terrorism, continues to be courted by western leaders. In February, he was named as a commissioner on the Commission for Africa, an initiative of Tony Blair, British prime minister, despite his government's failure to accept an international legal ruling.

Both sides insist they have no intention of going back to war, but there have been no direct talks between them since 1998.

The disputes between the countries are far more deep-rooted and complex than a simple border dispute. Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year guerilla war. Relations began to sour in the mid-1990s, particularly after Eritrea introduced its own currency, the Nakfa, in 1997 in an attempt to assert greater economic independence.

Each accuses the other of being the aggressor, and both retain huge armies despite being among the world's poorest countries. Eritrea's army is believed to number about 300,000 for a population of just 3.5m. Ethiopia, Africa's third most populous country with 70m people, is reckoned to have some 150,000 troops. "It's a messy and an extremely frustrating situation," said a diplomat in Asmara, Eritrea's capital. "Always by some miscalculation or something spiralling out of control war could happen."