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U.S. diplomats hope to avert new war between Ethiopia, Eritrea

MEKELE, Ethiopia—In a scrubby garden at an elementary school here stand 12 wooden posts, one for each student killed on a summer afternoon eight years ago, when a warplane from neighboring Eritrea dropped a pair of cluster bombs.

In all, 47 people died in the schoolyard that day—the deadliest for civilians during a war between Ethiopia and Eritrea that has cost 70,000 lives but failed to resolve the root of the conflict—ownership of a few shards of contested land along the countries' mountainous border.

Today, in the jagged terrain north of Mekele, the countries have amassed at least 200,000 troops on either side of the border. Their presence has raised fears of a new war that analysts said would kill thousands more and plunge the Horn of Africa region—including ever-volatile Sudan and Somalia—deeper into crisis.

A team of senior U.S. diplomats, led by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer, is due to arrive this week for emergency talks to try to defuse the tension in a region that's important in the war against terrorism. Ethiopia hosts U.S. troops along its eastern border with Somalia, a potential outpost of groups allied with al-Qaida.

But few local observers are optimistic about Washington's chances to break the deadlock between two impoverished countries for which the fate of a handful of dry, craggy frontier towns is a matter of the deepest national pride.

"I hope the Americans have something creative up their sleeve," said Kinfe Abraham, head of the Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development, a policy research group allied with the Ethiopian government. "Otherwise I don't know what they're going to achieve."

In recent months, Eritrea has so restricted the operations of U.N. peacekeeping forces placed along the border to monitor the cease-fire that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has raised the possibility that the mission could withdraw.

The U.N. Security Council recently postponed talks on the fate of the peacekeeping mission to give the U.S. envoys a chance to work.

Washington has good relations with both countries and is seen as one of the few mediators that could break the impasse, analysts said.

"This is what both governments wanted," said Matt Bryden, Horn of Africa director for the International Crisis Group research agency. "Both parties seem to have confidence in the U.S. ability to deliver a solution."

The deadlock stems from 2000, when the warring countries agreed to a truce that allowed an independent commission to draw up a boundary line.

Two years later, the commission awarded the village of Badme, which Ethiopian troops held during the war, to Eritrea.

Ethiopia was incensed at losing land to its tiny northern neighbor, which once had been an Ethiopian province. It refused to give up Badme. Eritrea has refused to discuss any other issue with Ethiopia until that happens, and Eritrea's president, Isaias Afwerki, has kept his country on a war footing, with a military that accounts for 10 percent of the population.

The history of the conflict reads like a family squabble gone horribly wrong. In 1991, rebel groups from each side teamed up to oust a common enemy, Ethiopia's Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Eritrea claimed its independence, installing Afwerki as president. Ethiopia picked Meles Zenawi, a distant cousin of Afwerki, as prime minister.

For the next several years relations were friendly. But the allies were so cordial that they neglected to settle thorny differences, such as ownership of Badme. When Ethiopia formally claimed the village it launched a series of events that led to war in 1998.

These days, Meles and Afwerki accuse each other of saber rattling to distract from domestic problems, which are severe. After being hailed during the 1990s as progressive reformers, both leaders are consolidating power and stifling dissent while their countries slide deeper into poverty.

Dozens of people were killed in November in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, when police fired into crowds protesting the results of disputed elections in May. Last month Ethiopian authorities charged 131 people—mainly leading opposition politicians, independent journalists and civil society members—with attempting to overthrow the government.

Thousands more remain in jail without charge, and representatives of domestic and international aid agencies have been hauled in for questioning.

In Eritrea, military spending is straining the economy. The national army numbers 320,000 troops, and all adults between the ages of 17 and 65 are eligible to be drafted. Military spending sucks up 9 percent of Eritrea's economic activity.

Meanwhile, inflation is skyrocketing and, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 1.4 million people need food aid.

Facing poverty, political persecution and the possibility of being drafted, about 350 Eritrean refugees cross the heavily militarized border into Ethiopia each month—and that number is rising, said David Murphy, head of the Ethiopia office of the International Rescue Committee.

Analysts and diplomats agree that neither side can afford a war. The threat of a new conflict sharply intensified in October, when Eritrea suddenly banned U.N. helicopter flights within its airspace.

The move has made it impossible for peacekeepers to monitor remote parts of the disputed area, and last week Annan reported that several hundred armed Eritreans had been spotted at various locations within a demilitarized zone along the border. The chances of a military miscalculation are high, analysts said.

"Because of the reduced U.N. presence on the border, any incident could be interpreted as a provocation," Bryden said.

Tensions have diminished slightly in recent weeks. Ethiopia complied with a U.N. directive to pull eight troop divisions back from the border, and this week U.N. military officials said they had seen no tanks or other offensive deployments by Eritrean forces.

But in northern Ethiopia, where the sting of the last war is still felt, people remain fearful. Hundreds of Ethiopian troops are said to be based in the hills surrounding Mekele, an important commercial center where residents have ties on both sides.

"They speak the same language," said Admasu Dagnew, 60, a historian. "Ethiopia was the first country that recognized Eritrea. We are one and the same."

But Araya Asgede Belay, director of the elementary school that was bombed in 1998, said wars over territory aren't easily resolved. He believes the government should fight for its claim to Badme.

"Imagine what happens if someone takes your property," he said. "You want to take it back."


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): ETHIOPIA-ERITREA

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