Ethiopia has mounted a major diplomatic campaign to halt the U.S. plan to provide arms to neighboring Somalia in return for access to air and naval facilities there for the new U.S. Rapid Deployment Force.
The Ethopian military leader, Mengistu Haile-Mariam, has sent personal messages to the heads of state of 36 countries, including President Carter. In addition, he has dispatched special envoys to 34 nations in an effort to bring pressure on the American government to change its mind.
The Ethiopian envoy to North and South American countries, Maj. Dawit Wolde-Giorgis, charged at a press conference here Tuesday that the American-Somali agreement, signed in August, was an "act of provocation" that could ignite another war in the Horn of Africa.
Ethiopia and Somalia fought wars in 1964 and in 1977-78 over the Ogaden region, a semi-desert region in southeast Ethiopia to which Somalia has long laid claim because the people there are mostly Somali-speaking nomads. Fighting broke out again in the Ogaden last summer as Somali regular troops once again joined Somali irregulars in trying to seize a town.
"We are appealing to all peace-loving countries to pressure the United States to stop setting up bases inside Somalia," Maj. Dawit said, indicating Ethiopia also fears that American Rapid Deployment Force troops might also be used against the Marxist Ethiopian government.
Dawit noted that Berbera, where the main U.S. facilities would be located in northern Somalia, was only 117 miles from Ethiopia's border.
Dawit Warned that the United States by providing arms to Somalia, risked becoming involved in the Somalia-Ethiopian dispute over the Ogaden. "Somalia wants to draw the United States into a war situation," he said. "Once America gets involved in Somalia, gets its bases, the Somalia government feels [the U.S.] would be obliged to fulfill its demands to keep from being expelled from Somalia."
"Somalia and Ethiopia are in a state of war. They have been in a state of war for the past five years," he added.
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Richard Moose, in testimony before the House Africa subcommittee Aug. 26, said Somalia had given written and oral assurances that American arms would not be used in the Ogaden and that it would cease armed warfare against Ethiopia. Considerable doubt remains, however, about whether the Somalis intend to live up to their pledge in light of their strong commitment to annexing the Ogaden.
Dawit said there were still "many regular" Somali soldiers operating as guerrillas inside the Ogaden but have no precise number.
Asked whether the Soviets, who have provided between $1 billion and $2 billion in arms to Ethiopia since 1977, did not already have similar facilities in Ethiopia to those the United States would have in Somalia, Dawit said "there is no such thing like a [Soviet] facility or base inside Ethiopia for the use of the Soviets."
U.S. policy-makers, in defending the agreement with Somalia, say the Soviets have constructed a drydock in the Dahlak Islands of Messewa. But Dawit insisted there are "no facilities which have been constructed on Dahlak."
He also said that the Soviets had not raised the question of facilities since the signing of the U.S.-Somali agreement. But he also indicated Ethiopian concern about getting involved in an American-Soviet confrontation in the Horn of Africa, saying, "We don't want to be trapped in the East-West business and lose our independence."
On another contentious Ethiopian-American issue, Dawit said that Ethiopia was insisting that the two Cuban soldiers who took refuge inside the American Embassy in Addis Ababa last May be handed over to the Ethiopian government "so that they can go back home to their country, Cuba."
The U.S. government has refused to do this and proposed instead that the two Cubans be turned over to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to be released in a third country.
Dawit said Ethiopia took the position that the Cubans were not refugees and therefore the involvement of the U.N. agency was unacceptable.
Asked about the future of the 13,000 Cuban troops stationed in Ethiopia, Dawit said Ethiopia had been "harassed" by unnamed foreign governments to send the troops home, but that it was a "matter of principle" now that they stay until there was no longer a need for them.
Asked when this might be, Dawit said, "Our need is determined by the international situation." But he refused to say precisely whether the presence of American troops in Somalia would be a factor in this determination.
The Ethiopian envoy said he planned to talk to a number of U.S. congressmen while here but would not meet with any State Department or White House officials because President Carter had failed so far to answer Mengistu's personal message.