Peace efforts fail to halt Ethiopia-Eritrea war

By David Rowan
13 June 2000

Fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea has intensified over the past few weeks despite peace talks sponsored by the United Nations and mediated by the Organisation for African Unity (OAU). The United States and the European Union (EU) also have representatives at the talks in the Algerian capital Algiers.

Last month, both sides ignored a UN deadline to end the fighting, despite a high-profile intervention in the region by Richard Holbrooke, US ambassador to the United Nations. The UN subsequently imposed a ban on arms sales to both Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Fierce fighting has now resumed on the western front, around the Eritrean towns of Guluj and Tesseney. Ethiopia claimed it was to deal with "provocative attacks" made by the Eritrean army, whilst the Eritrean government said that Ethiopia had started the fighting. Eritrea has agreed to sign the peace proposals and to accept the deployment of a peacekeeping force. Ethiopia, which has been on the offensive in this last stage of the two-year conflict, asked for time to consider the proposals.

On May 25, following a three-week Ethiopian offensive into western Eritrea, the Eritrean government agreed to pull its troops out of the disputed southern and western regions of Eritrea in line with OAU proposals. The Ethiopian government began occupying areas left by the Eritrean army and called for the OAU proposals to be modified to take into account its military victory and the land it had gained.

The talks in Algeria have had little impact on finding a peaceful solution to the conflict and are instead being used as a means to ratify land gained through the war and to strengthen respective negotiating positions. The policy of the Ethiopian government was summed up by one official, who said that Addis Ababa was "fighting while negotiating and negotiating by fighting".

Over the last week the Ethiopian army has concentrated its fighting around the Eastern Bure region, about 70 kilometres from the strategic Red Sea port of Assab. Control of the port was always a key aim for landlocked Ethiopia, not simply regaining the disputed territory in the western region of Badme. The clash between the two extremely poor countries revolves around economics and trading relations, particularly the advantages that Eritrea gained after independence in 1993 by controlling Ethiopia's main access to the sea.

The Ethiopian air force recently bombed Asmara airport in Eritrea and the Irafayle and Hagigo power plants, using MIG 23 fighter planes. This was part of a renewed offensive at the Bure front near port Assab. Before the recent round of fighting in the western region of Tesseney, it was reported that the Eritrean army repulsed an Ethiopian attack with 3,700 Ethiopian soldiers killed or wounded. The Ethiopian government says it has now driven Eritrean forces out of all the disputed territory it had occupied since the war began in May 1998.

The prime minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, recently went on state television and called for international peacekeepers to be used as a “buffer” force in disputed regions. He said, "We want an international force to be deployed before our troops leave the Eritrean places they hold."

The war has cost the lives of an estimated 100,000 people and costs $1 million per day. Reports from the UN and relief agencies working in Eritrea put the number of Eritreans displaced by the war at 750,000.The UN stated that the humanitarian crisis throughout the Horn of Africa was reaching "historical proportions". It is reported that at least 60,000 people have fled into the Kassala region of Sudan and that a further 50,000 people are gathered at Tesseney on the Sudanese border. The United Nations Commission for Refugees reported on May 29 that an estimated 10,000 people fled into Sudan in 24 hours to avoid renewed fighting. A quarter of those fleeing are women and 65 to 70 percent are children.

Relief agencies stated that the majority of those displaced by fighting were from the western grain-producing Gash Barha region of Eritrea. This area is already badly affected by drought and the disruption to planting threatens to wipe out the next harvest. A UN aid worker said that as a result of the war Eritrea would be dependent on food aid for the next year. The entire Horn region has been affected by drought for the last three years, threatening the lives of eight million Ethiopians and one million Eritreans. The UN estimates that up to 30 million people are at risk in the region and said that an extra $378 million is needed for emergency food aid, water and medical supplies.

A number of camps have been set up to the south of the Eritrean capital Asmara. There are 48,000 refugees in Hariena, 51,000 in Debat and 56,000 in Salina. Conditions are very poor, with three families sharing one tent and others sleeping outside on rubber sheeting. Cases of respiratory infections and diarrhoea are beginning to grow and aid workers said the risk of disease would be heightened with the expected rains.