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An African War That Goes Beyond Borders

May 31, 2000|ANN M. SIMMONS and JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ASMARA, Eritrea — The war that has pitted Africa's oldest nation against its newest has become a perplexing study of a minor dispute gone awry.

The conflict between Ethiopia and its young neighbor, Eritrea, initially was triggered by an argument over their poorly demarcated and largely uninhabited 620-mile border. But analysts say it has spun out of control for the simple reason that the squabble over land opened the door to hostilities over other issues.

Concerns about trade, regional leadership, nationalism and the pride of two former guerrilla leaders intent on using force rather than diplomacy have fueled the crisis, according to political observers and foreign diplomats.

The failure to quickly stop the war threatens to further destabilize the Horn of Africa. It also casts a shadow over Western hopes that Ethiopia and Eritrea might help lead a new drive toward democracy, progress and development on a continent plagued by poverty, injustice and war.

Indirect peace talks aimed at settling the crisis began Tuesday in Algiers, the Algerian capital. The negotiations, sponsored by the Organization of African Unity, are also being attended by U.S. and European envoys.

Eritrea withdrew from disputed territories last week, and Ethiopia followed this week by pulling its troops out of areas it had seized in western Eritrea.

"This is a positive sign," said Hermann Hanekom, a political analyst with the Africa Institute in Pretoria, South Africa. "Now it's a matter of getting both parties to agree to a cease-fire at the end of hostilities."

Though there was hope that the talks eventually might settle the border dispute, the other underlying issues also must be resolved if a lasting peace is to be found.

Animosity had been building for years between Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.

Eritrea is a former Italian colony that Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie annexed in 1962. Nearly three decades later, Ethiopian rebels who overthrew Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam awarded Eritrean allies in the struggle a referendum on independence. As a result, Eritrea became a nation in 1993.

Before Eritrea's creation, Meles was head of the Tigre People's Liberation Front, while Isaias led the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. As national leaders, the two men soon disagreed over issues such as governance and commerce.

Isaias established a state tightly controlled from the center; Meles tried to win support from the population by devolving some authority to the regions.

Ethiopians maintained that commercial relations were weighted in favor of their neighbor and left their nation dependent on Eritrea's goodwill. Businesspeople in landlocked Ethiopia complained about the cost of access to the port of Assab in southeastern Eritrea. Tariffs were too high and the oil refinery at Assab overcharged for its products, Ethiopians complained.

In 1997, relations soured even further when Eritrea introduced its own currency, the nakfa, and cut links to the Ethiopian birr. Ethiopia refused to recognize its neighbor's new money, insisting on the use of hard currency for trade.

With the friendship between the two governments on the rocks, the border issue came to a head. They argued over several areas that had belonged to the Ethiopian province of Tigray before Eritrea became independent.

Eritrea claimed that local Tigrayan officials were trying to colonize these areas, sending thousands of settlers over the border and pushing Eritreans out. A border commission established by the two countries failed to make much progress.

In May 1998, Eritrea eschewed international mediation and sent troops into an area around the Eritrean town of Badme after a clash between one of its military patrols and Ethiopian police. Ethiopia responded in kind. Intense fighting erupted, occasionally interrupted by intervals of rearming and pursuing diplomatic negotiations. Efforts by the United States, Rwanda and the Organization of African Unity to broker lasting peace largely have failed.

"The Ethiopians say, 'We trusted these guys, we helped them with their independence,' " said a ranking Western diplomat in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. "They feel they were stabbed in the back."

Both sides have fought a conventional battle, with all the blood and gore reminiscent of World War I trench warfare. The semi-arid rocky escarpments where most fighting has occurred have hindered rapid ground movement. Assaults into minefields and liberal use of machine guns, tanks and heavy artillery have resulted in tens of thousands of casualties. The exact death toll is unclear.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced. Ethiopia has rounded up and expelled an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 people of Eritrean descent. Although Eritrea has not officially undertaken such deportations, many Ethiopians have lost their jobs or voluntarily returned to their homeland.

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