Guardian Unlimited -- Fears of a renewed war in the Horn of Africa mounted yesterday after Eritrea expelled UN observers policing its border with Ethiopia. The expulsion order is a fresh blow to the organisation's ability to monitor Africa's most volatile frontier.
In October, Eritrea banned UN helicopter flights over the 15 mile-wide buffer zone along the border, and tensions have mounted in recent weeks with military manoeuvres by both sides.
Ethiopia and Eritrea fought over the mountainous and sparsely inhabited border region between 1998 and 2000, a conflict that cost at least 70,000 lives.
Analysts suggested the latest move revealed Eritrea's frustration with the UN, which it believes has been lenient towards Ethiopia. "I think this enhances the risk of a miscalculation or some incident on the border that could escalate," said Matt Bryden, an analyst for the thinktank International Crisis Group. "But I don't think Eritrea is signalling an intent to enter a conflict with Ethiopia."
A UN security council resolution last month threatened both countries with sanctions if they failed to withdraw their forces from the border. The same resolution expressed "grave concern" that Ethiopia had failed to accept a ruling awarding the border town of Badme to Eritrea. But to Eritrea's dismay, the UN did not threaten Ethiopia with sanctions for its reluctance to hand over the town.
Mr Bryden said: "Eritrea was very upset by [the UN resolution]. There were a number of statements declaring it unfair."
Eritrea believes the western powers favour its bigger neighbour, whose prime minister, Meles Zenawi, is a member of Tony Blair's Commission for Africa. It is aggrieved that Ethiopia continues to occupy Badme, a small town which was the flashpoint of the 1998 war, despite the international boundary commission ruling which awarded it to Eritrea.
"Eritrea escalating the confrontation with the UN is a very risky thing to do, given that this is the most militarised border in Africa," Mr Bryden said.
A diplomat in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, said the expulsion, which applies to observers from the US, Canada, Europe and Russia, would leave the UN effectively disabled. It is thought to affect 90 out of 230 military observers as well as administrative and logistical staff.
Both countries are among the poorest in the world and extremely dependent on overseas aid. It is estimated that about 70% of Eritrea's population will need foreign food aid this year. The 1998 war harmed both economies, but was particularly damaging for Eritrea, where the ports of Massawa and Assab depended on Ethiopian trade.
A spokeswoman for the UN mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (Unmee) confirmed the expulsion of observers but did not name the countries involved.
"Unmee confirms that certain nationalities within the UN mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea have been asked to leave the mission area within 10 days," she told Reuters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. The Eritrean information minister Ali Abdu declined to comment.
An Ethiopian information ministry spokesman said: "Ethiopia considers Eritrea's decision to expel certain nationals serving under the UN mission is unhelpful to the efforts being exerted to end the border crisis."
In 1993 the Eritreans voted for independence from Ethiopia after rebels from both countries ousted the Marxist Derg regime. But by 1998 border skirmishes led to a war in which at least 70,000 died.
In 2000 a peace agreement was signed and a buffer zone was set up but border disputes continue.
In 2002 a boundary commission awarded the border town of Badme to Eritrea, a decision Ethiopia refused to accept. The military build-up on both sides is now such that the UN is warning that the conflict might resume.