UN to halve Eritrea-Ethiopia force


May 20, 2006 (KHARTOUM) — The United Nations plans to halve its peacekeeping force on the tense border between Ethiopia and Eritrea after talks this week failed to break a deadlock between the arch-foes, diplomats said Friday.

The move to reduce the number of troops in the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) from 3,000 to 1,500 comes after the two east African countries refused to back down at two days of discussions in London, they said.

“The London talks this week failed,” one western diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “So the UN has now decided to reduce UNMEE’s military troops from 3,000 men to 1,500 men.”

A second Asmara-based diplomat confirmed that the reduction “is what is most likely to happen” and said a final decision by the UN Security Council could come as early as Monday.

The council has grown increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress in fully implementing the peace deal in the year 2000 that ended Ethiopia and Eritrea’s two-year border war after the loss of some 80,000 lives.

It has threatened to downgrade UNMEE unless Addis Ababa and Asmara comply with demands to ease tensions that have sparked fears of a new conflict.

On Monday, it postponed its decision by two weeks and expressed hope that the London meeting of an international boundary panel attended by representatives of the two nations would yield progress.

But on Friday, Ethiopian and Eritrean officials traded blame for the failure of the talks, each accusing the other side of holding to long-standing inflexible positions.

Asmara blamed the stalemate on Addis Ababa’s refusal to accept the panel’s binding 2002 border demarcation that was part of the peace agreement, saying no progress was achieved.

“On the critical matter — Ethiopia’s rejection of the boundary commission’s decision — there was no progress,” said Yemane Gebremeskel, director of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s office.

“Ethiopia repeated that it accepts the ruling in principle but that in practice it has to be altered,” he told AFP. “But the boundary commission has made it clear that that position is not legal.”

At the same time, Addis Ababa said it had met its obligations and that Asmara was responsible for the current situation as it is refusing to comply with UN Security Council demands to lift restrictions it has imposed on UNMEE.

Ethiopia has repeatedly called for the review of the border ruling, which awarded the flashpoint town of Badme to Eritrea, arguing it unfairly splits families and homes between the two countries.

“Ethiopia fulfilled every obligation … and attended the meeting with an open mind, but there is no flexibility on the Eritrean side,” an Ethiopian foreign ministry official said.

Eritrea has rejected Ethiopia’s calls for revisions, arguing that the demarcation is final, and has loudly complained that the international community has not done enough to press Ethiopia to accept the decision.

In frustration, Asmara last year slapped wide-ranging restrictions on UNMEE, banning helicopter flights, restricting ground patrols and expelling all the mission’s western staff from its territory.

It has thus far ignored Security Council threats to impose sanctions if the restrictions are not lifted, prompting accusations from Ethiopia that Eritrea is not committed to peace.

“They are not ready to lift the sanctions imposed on UNMEE’s movements,” the Ethiopian official said.

Yemane Gebremeskel said Eritrea might be prepared to ease them, but only after Ethiopia accepted the new boundary in full.

“The critical issue is demarcation,” he said. “Logistical arrangements can be discussed once it starts. Ethiopia’s position is clear, the question now is what does the Security Council do?”

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