Senseless stand-off costs starving millions

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The Independent Online

Two years after Eritrea's disastrous invasion of Ethiopia in May 1998, fratricidal war in the Horn of Africa still simmers while people starve.

Two years after Eritrea's disastrous invasion of Ethiopia in May 1998, fratricidal war in the Horn of Africa still simmers while people starve.

Since Ethiopia recovered the captured town of Badame in February last year and Eritrea's unsuccessful effort to win it back nine months ago, there has been little actual fighting.

But both sides still hold areas of the other's territory; half a million soldiers remain in trenches along the disputed borders, and both countries continue to spend millions of dollars they can ill afford on tanks, planes and other high-tech weaponry.

Mediation has made little progress. Originally, Eritrea baulked at the framework peace deal from the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) which Ethiopia accepted in November 1998, and agreed only after its loss of Badame. Last July, both sides endorsed the second stage of the peace plan, but talks have subsequently broken down.

Last month, it seemed that the Algerian and United States mediators had accepted Ethiopia's arguments, and Addis Ababa said it finally found the technical arrangements satisfactory.

Eritrea promptly objected, claiming the changes favoured Ethiopia; President Issayas of Eritrea, presently in Washington, insists that Eritrea should now be allowed to make its changes to the arrangements.

Proximity talks, due in Algiers in March, were postponed until 20 April, and US negotiators suspect there will be further delays.

As the wrangling continues, drought and famine deepen in both countries. Eritrea has about one million people at risk, almost a third of its population; Ethiopia is currently appealing for food aid for nearly eight million people. If the short rains are insufficient as seems likely, two million more will need help, pushing the estimated food aid requirement up from 800,000 tons to over a million tons.

By 1999, Ethiopia had already suffered two years of drought and joined international aid agencies in sounding the alarm.

A major appeal was launched in January this year, but the response has been slow. Little more than 50 per cent of the food needed has been pledged, and as of 1 April, virtually nothing had actually arrived -- leading Ethiopia's Foreign Minister, Seyoum Mesfin, to claim that it was only when people started to see "skeletons on screens" that the international community reacted.

One effect is that food stocks will not be in place on the ground before the start of the main rains in June, making transportation far harder.

The EU now says it is preparing to send 800,000 tons of food. But this raises concerns over the long term ability of the port of Djibouti, Ethiopia's main access to the sea, to cope. Though it is linked to Addis Ababa by two roads and a railway, all three desperately need modernising.

Ethiopia lost the use of the Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab when war broke out in May 1998, meaning that almost all of its imports, including military and food aid, and exports, pass through Djibouti -- though some relief for the worst hit south-east is entering through the Somali port of Berbera. Thus far, Djibouti has managed, but an extra 120,000 to 150,000 tons of food aid month, will stretch it to the limit.

A suggestion that Assab might be used has been accepted by Eritrea, though not by Ethiopia which is likely reject Eritrea's condition of a parallel ban on Ethiopian military supplies through Djibouti. Nor has Addis Ababa forgotten that Eritrea commandeered the 45,000 tons of US food assistance for Ethiopia which arrived at Assab after the war started.