Border War Resumes in Horn of Africa
By Karl Vick
The two countries have been in conflict for the past 10 months over parts of their common border that were not clearly delineated when Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993. This time, in addition to the boundary, the two governments are arguing over the peace plan to which each has publicly agreed.
"We have both accepted it, yes," said Ethiopian government spokeswoman Selome Taddesse, of an agreement hammered out by the Organization of African Unity (OAU). "We accepted it back in November, remember? Way back."
Eritrea, for its part, subscribed to the plan only after losing the biggest chunk of contested ground in heavy fighting on Badme plain. The battles left thousands -- perhaps tens of thousands -- dead or wounded.
But the next step was not the cease-fire demanded by the U.N. Security Council. Instead, the combatants have quarreled over details of the agreement that diplomats failed to resolve.
At issue are the smaller areas Eritrean forces continue to hold, including the Zalambessa and Tsorona front, south of the Eritrean capital of Asmara, where fighting resumed Sunday.
The peace plan calls for both sides to withdraw their forces from all contested areas, for independent observers to take the field and for technical experts to decide the boundary. However, Ethiopia insists that Eritrea, which triggered the crisis last May by moving forces into the contested area, must pull out first.
The OAU remains ambiguous about the matter. The language of its plan calls for both sides to "demilitarize" the contested areas. But it also "takes note" of Ethiopia's stipulation. Ethiopia considers that validation. Eritrea calls it politeness.
"It's become clear now," said Eritrean spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel. "The Ethiopians are backtracking."
Selome, the Ethiopian spokeswoman, denied that her country harbors a hidden agenda. "We have no interest in any land that's Eritrean," she said. "The sticking point has always been that we insist they pull their forces from our land first."
The two governments did not agree, either, on the intensity of the most recent fighting.
Gebremeskel, Eritrea's spokesman, described it as "very intense," and called it a major offensive involving Ethiopian helicopter gunships, fighter planes, tanks and two infantry divisions. He said Eritrea had destroyed 19 tanks, captured two more and downed an Ethiopian MiG-23 fighter, which he said crashed behind Ethiopian lines.
Ethiopia called the claim "a lie" and described the fighting as only moderate, after denying Sunday that it was going on at all. "Earlier, it was skirmishes," Selome said, adding that the fighting later escalated.
A diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, said Ethiopia was widely assumed to have started the battle, despite having "already paid a huge price in support from the international community" because of its earlier offensives.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company