US plans to host Ethiopia peace bid

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The Independent Online
BOTH ETHIOPIA and Eritrea continue to reject calls by the UN Security Council for an immediate cessation of hostilities, although there has been a significant halt in heavy fighting for the past few days. On Friday, the Ethiopian government asked its people to celebrate military victories on the front line, claiming to have pushed back Eritrean forces. But Eritrea has similarly claimed initial victory, widely publishing pictures from its defensive positions in the trenches.

A lull in the fighting has created space for a renewed diplomatic effort, with the US reportedly planning to send representatives from Washington next week. The battle of words remains intense. Eritrea accused Ethiopia yesterday of killing a dozen civilians in shelling on villages near the disputed town of Zalambessa, a centre of fighting in their new border war. Ethiopia said it was gaining ground and would not stop fighting until it regained the contested territory.

Both sides claim the other is responsible for starting the conflict, although Ethiopia recently accepted it broke the air moratorium last Friday, and apologised for the death of civilians in a bombing raid on Tuesday. Eritrea refuses to withdraw from the 1,000 sq km disputed area of land, a crucial condition of a brokered peace plan in November, under the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

A special UN representative, Mohamed Sahnoun, warned this week - having returned from fruitless talks with the two leaders - that Africa was facing its first "hi-tech war". Both sides have stockpiled an enormous amount of sophisticated weaponry, making a mockery of the arms embargo threatened by the international community.

Although the guns are quiet, there is an uneasy wait for war in the Eritrean capital. It is seen as inevitable. Windows in some offices have been covered with a shatter-proof lining; non-essential international staff are being evacuated; and the US government has issued a warning for all Americans to get out of the two capitals. Two US warships with about 1,500 marines, helicopters and jets, are on stand-by off the Horn of Africa. "It's 50-50," said one diplomat, reflecting speculation over an imminent air strike by Ethiopia.

The Eritreans themselves - after a 30-year struggle for independence - are so acclimatised to war that its threat almost ensures a sense of normality. Traffic continues, businesses stay open and children are in the classroom.

But up to 50km from the southern front-line in Badme, Tsoronna and Zel Ambessa, civilians are fleeing with their goats, donkeys and camels. For some, it is too late. In Mendefra Hospital, eight-year-old Tigist Hagos is supported on the bed by her father - her legs and hands ripped by shrapnel. She was at a wedding in Adi Quale when it was bombarded.

She is one of the new generation of war-disabled citizens in a country that celebrated peace and independence only six years ago.