Fighting breaks out on Ethiopian-Eritrean border

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The Independent Online

Two days after a high-level United Nations delegation abandoned fruitless attempts to get Ethiopia and Eritrea to make peace, both countries said Friday that heavy fighting had broken out at three contested places on their common border.

A resumption in the two-year war over the 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) border had been rumored in both Addis Ababa and Asmara, Eritrea, for days, even as Richard Holbrooke, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and six other Security Council representatives, urged and cajoled the leaders of two of the world's 10 poorest countries not to return to a "senseless" war.

Eritrean radio interrupted an Amharic language broadcast between 6:30 and 7 a.m. (0330-0400gmt) to announce that Ethiopia had attacked.

"The Ethiopian regime has launched an offensive on the right and left flanks of the Mereb-Setit front (Badme) today, 12 May 2000. The attack began shortly after midnight," an Eritrean Foreign Ministry statement said.

"Earlier this week, Ethiopia's Prime Minister declared to the diplomatic community in Addis Ababa as well as to the visiting U.N. Security Council mission that Ethiopia is 'going to war and it will resolve the conflict very soon,"' the statement said.

In Addis Ababa, government spokeswoman Salome Tadesse issued a brief statement saying that heavy fighaccuse Eritrea of launching the latest round of attacks.

Later, Salome said fighting was also going on at Bure, 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Eritrea's Red Sea port of Assab.

The Ethiopian statement referred to the "unwillingness" of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki "to negotiate a peace resolution of the conflict and withdraw its troops from the occupied territories as specified in the OAU framework agreement for peace."

"The latest attempt to end the conflict diplomatically was foiled last week when the Eritrea government refused to discuss the substantive matter of a technical arrangement for the implementation of the OAU peace plan," the statement said.

"All I can say is that Ethiopia is defying the international community and the Organization of African Unity," President Isaias' spokesman, Yemane Gebremeskel, said when contact by telephone from Nairobi, Kenya.

In Asmara, a diplomat who asked not to be further identified, said it was clear that Ethiopia had attacked Eritrean positions.

He added that unlike June 1998 when Ethiopia bombed Asmara's international airport, it seemed unlikely that Ethiopia would bomb again with the knowledge that Eritrea has since acquired several MiG-29 jet fighters.

The war broke out in May 1998 when Eritrea occupied positions in Badme, 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Addis Ababa in the Yirga triangle. Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year guerrilla war. Because Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Isaias were comrades in the fight to oust dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, they did not get around to officially demarcating the border two years after they ousted Mengistu in 1991.

A framework agreement fashioned by the Addis-based Organization of African Unity was immediately accepted by Ethiopia in December 1998. Eritrea accepted in February 1999 after suffering serious setbacks when Ethiopia retook Badme.

But final implementation of the agreement got hung up on when a cease-fire should take effect - before or after other problems were worked out. Eritrea favored the former, Ethiopia the later.

As he left Asmara in exasperation Wednesday night, Holbrooke said he could not believe the two countries would go to war over something so petty.

On Thursday, the British Security Council delegation circulated a draft resolution calling on both countries to refrain from a resumption of warfare.

Diplomats in both capitals have spoken over the past week of a probable resumption of fighting. Those in Ethiopia say the Meles government is facing a serious economic crisis and believed it could not afford to wait until a peace agreement was implemented, preferring to launch one final attack to end the war.

Ethiopia's estimated population is 61.7 million. Eritrea's is 4 million.

Ethiopia is scheduled to hold elections Sunday, only the second in its turbulent history as Africa's oldest independent nation. Discussion of the border conflict scarcely figured in the pre-electoral debates that were carried on state-run radio and television.