Sunday, December 25, 2005

Buildup Brings Ethiopia, Eritrea Back to the Brink

Washington Post -- As an orange sun sank over the tin shacks of a new military base at this border city's airport last week, dozens of Ethiopian soldiers killed time playing soccer. They were waiting to be called to service as their country edged toward another conflict with Eritrea, just a short drive away.

The two countries fought a grisly, trench-style war between 1998 and 2000 over disputed slivers of the mountainous border. The fighting ended in a truce, but only after more than 70,000 lives were lost.

Eritreans in the town of Shambuko walk past a tank abandoned during the 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia. Diplomats in the Horn of Africa estimate there are hundreds of thousands of troops on both sides of the 570-mile border between the two countries.

Now, there is a new standoff and a new buildup of forces. The troops in Aksum, diplomats said, are part of larger contingents positioned in freshly dug trenches along both sides of the 570-mile frontier. They estimated that there are about 130,000 on the Ethiopian side and 250,000 on the Eritrean side.

Officials in both countries have spoken on state television and radio, each presenting their country as the victim of aggression and making blustery threats of retaliation. Analysts said the growing confrontation is distracting attention from internal problems in both impoverished countries and renewing fears of a rekindled war that would threaten regional stability.

In a report released this week, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said foreign organizations must "urgently re-engage if a disastrous new war between Eritrea and Ethiopia is to be averted." A resumption of conflict, the report said, would destabilize and rearm the entire Horn of Africa, "rekindling a proxy war in Somalia and undermining the fragile peace process in southern and eastern Sudan."

In an interview Monday in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi charged that Eritrean leaders "will not hesitate for a moment to start another war if they think they will profit from it. Our military balance has to be such to dissuade them."

In Eritrea, President Isaias Afwerki has recently restricted helicopter flights by U.N. monitors along the border and expelled 180 U.N. peacekeepers sent to help maintain a cease-fire. He also refused to meet with a delegation sent by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

In a recent interview with state media representatives in Asmara, the capital, Isaias accused Ethiopia's leaders of rushing to war to cement power at a time when Meles and his ruling party have been criticized for crushing political dissent.

"They are trying to escape forward from the crisis by any means," Isaias said, according to the Eritrean government Web site. "They are deflecting and drawing attention away from the crisis present now in Ethiopia. . . . The intention of igniting the war comes from the Ethiopia regime's crisis and its despair."

Civic leaders from both countries say a return to war would be mutual suicide. In the previous conflict, each side suffered high casualties among both fighters and civilians. And the war cost each country an estimated $1 million a day.

Although largely confined to several border towns, the conflict was particularly bitter because of ties between the two countries. They have a common culture and have high rates of cross-migration and intermarriage.

A decade ago, Meles and Isaias were hailed by U.S. officials as part of a new generation of progressive and democratic African leaders. Today, both are increasingly unpopular at home, where they are criticized for failing to reduce desperate poverty and high unemployment.

To curb unrest, both leaders have jailed opposition leaders and sent riot police with live bullets to quell protests. And both have used the prospect of another deadly border war as a way to unite the populace against a foreign foe.

"The fear of war makes people forget all these other problems. . . . But the truth is these leaders are playing with our lives," said Firdi Mekonen, 41, a historian in Aksum. During the last conflict, it was a staging ground for Ethiopian troops and a refuge for wounded fighters and civilians fleeing fighting.

Last month, political tension in Ethiopia intensified as opposition party supporters filled the streets of Addis Ababa to protest disputed elections in May. Dozens of people, including women and children, were killed when security forces fired into crowds.

In the following weeks, police jailed at least 15,000 protesters and 130 senior opposition figures, including professors, judges and the city's elected mayor, Berhanu Nega. Most were charged with treason, but some are being prosecuted for calling for genocide against Meles's ethnic group, the Tigrayans.

On Monday, Meles said that only about 3,000 of those arrested remained in jail. However, diplomats and political leaders estimate the number to be four times higher. Meles blamed the main opposition group, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, for inciting violence and trying to overthrow his government.

He said that when the opposition leaders failed to rally support through civil disobedience, they resorted to violence. Officials said rioters burned 110 city buses and attacked police officers, eight of whom were killed.

"Their Phase Two wasn't peaceful protest. It was insurrection, and in my view that's treason. . . . Democracy is about having the rule of law," Meles said.

Meles once enjoyed a reputation abroad as a progressive reformer, especially compared with the brutal communist regime he helped overthrow in 1991. Now, Meles's image has been tarnished by the recent violence, and Western governments have become more critical.

"The international community was happy with the economic reforms, and people felt the democratic process was moving forward, but there still seems to be some command-and-control mentality," said Tim Clarke, the European Union ambassador in Addis Ababa. "There also still seem to be significant human rights abuses and arrests for protests."

But some observers think Meles's strategy of raising alarms about the threat from Eritrea may work at home, at least temporarily.

"It's a smart tactic," said Abdul Mohammed, an Ethiopian political scientist and analyst. "It has helped leaders on shaky ground around the world."

This is not the first time that both Ethiopia and Eritrea have used the threat of a border war to deflect internal problems. In Ethiopia, the ethnic minority government was politically unpopular until Eritrea attacked in 1998. Radio stations played folk songs about the sacrifices of war and national pride.

In Eritrea, the drums beat louder, drowning out internal complaints that the economy was in tatters, the free press a distant memory and unemployment rampant. The tiny country of 4.5 million people has one of the largest armies in Africa, according to diplomats and human rights groups.

These days, Isaias often appears on government-run television to incite Eritreans against Ethiopia. In recent months, analysts estimated that nearly 250,000 Eritrean troops had edged toward the border, and Ethiopia reportedly responded by beefing up its defenses. Threatened with U.N. sanctions, Ethiopia has started to pull back some troops, but Eritrea has remained defiant. The United Nations says Ethiopia has not taken steps to begin demarcation of its contested boundary, and the Security Council will debate the issue over the next month.

"Never has there been such a great crisis for the mission,'' said Jean-Marie Guehenno, the U.N. undersecretary general for peacekeeping operations. "Brinkmanship has been tried by countries many times in history, and very often it fails and leads to unintended consequences.''

Meles, in the interview, said his government would not respond to Eritrean aggression "short of a full invasion of our country." He said the first war with Eritrea "should have never happened. But if they invade our country, we have no choice."

Eritrea, in turn, is frustrated by Ethiopia's refusal to implement the 2002 ruling by an international boundary commission, set up as part of the peace agreement. Three years later, Ethiopian forces still occupy territory awarded to Eritrea.

Yet the international community has been reluctant to pressure Ethiopia to give up its border claim, or to halt the abuses of domestic opponents, because of its importance as a strategic ally in the U.S.-led war against terrorism. American soldiers are stationed along its border with Somalia to the southeast, a perceived haven for terrorist cells with possible links to al Qaeda.

That seems a flimsy rationale to Bomer Nega, 84, the father of jailed mayor Berhanu Nega. The elder Nega, who survived the harshest days of the communist regime, said Ethiopia's current ruling party is only interested in maintaining power. He said the protests began peacefully and only became violent when police used aggressive force.

"The opposition doesn't even have a spokesperson. They are all in jail," said Nega. "There's no democracy here. They allow leaders to be elected, but then put them behind bars. I think this country is being led back into the corner."

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