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  •   As War Ends, Peace Eludes Horn of Africa

    By Karl Vick
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Monday, March 1, 1999; Page A16

    NAIROBI, Feb. 28—Ethiopia declared "total victory" in its border war with Eritrea today, and Eritrea acknowledged losing most of the ground it has occupied since last summer. It was unclear, however, whether that rare point of agreement between the Horn of Africa neighbors moved them any closer to a peace settlement.

    Ethiopian forces on Friday breached trenches Eritrean troops started digging last May, when its tanks rolled into dusty hills and plains that had been lightly populated until soldiers began arriving by the tens of thousands. At the climax of a four-day battle that each side said claimed thousands of enemy lives, Eritrean forces pulled back in what a spokesman called a "strategic retreat."

    That retreat apparently left Ethiopia with the "Badme plain" -- the largest section of disputed territory on the 600-mile frontier the countries share. It also left Eritrea without grounds for continued objection to a settlement formulated by the Organization of African Unity.

    On Saturday, while its troops were still scrambling for higher ground, Eritrea's ambassador to the United Nations announced his country's full acceptance of the OAU plan, which Ethiopia signed long ago. It was acknowledgment by Eritrea that its objections to the plan -- one over withdrawing from the disputed territory, the other over whether Ethiopia would return to administering it while experts decided the boundary -- had become moot.

    "As we abandoned our front lines, the issue of Badme becomes somewhat irrelevant," said Yemane Ghebremeskel, an adviser to Eritrean President Issaias Afwerki.

    The U.N. Security Council welcomed the Eritrean statement and called for an immediate cease-fire. So did President Clinton.

    But Ethiopia had no immediate response. Government spokesman Selome Taddesse said senior Ethiopian officials would not reply before Monday. But she denied suggestions by Eritrean officials that the battlefield developments coincided with back-channel overtures from Ethiopia toward a cease-fire.

    "They have been defeated big time on the Badme-Shiraro front, so we don't need any back door," Selome said.

    The spokesman also denied that fighting continued today. Eritrea's Yemane said that Ethiopia initiated "fairly intense" fighting at 11 a.m., a claim broadly confirmed by a diplomat in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa who asked, "When did it ever stop?"

    Eritrea was a province of the much larger country until 1993, when it voted to separate in a referendum that was the fruit of a 30-year liberation war. The separation left Ethiopia landlocked, and in the run-up to the latest fighting some called for reclaiming the former province.

    "From the beginning there was this question, what was their real motive?" Yemane said. "We can judge from their actions."

    The diplomat acknowledged "some sticky issues." In addition to retaking the disputed territory that Eritrea had occupied last May, Ethiopian forces moved into areas that are " clearly Eritrean territory," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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