Village boundary dispute threatens Ethiopia peace deal

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The Independent Online

Fears are growing that a dispute over a remote village could reignite the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea that ended three years ago.

Fears are growing that a dispute over a remote village could reignite the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea that ended three years ago.

An argument over Badme, a mountain hamlet in a barren border zone, provoked the 1998 conflict, which in more than two years of trench warfare claimed at least 80,000 lives.

Both sides subsequently agreed to accept the findings of an international panel to determine the border issue. The Boundary Commission, based in The Hague, said last month that Badme belonged in Eritrea. That decision angered the Ethiopian government, which threatened to renege on the deal on borders.

The ruling was unacceptable, an Information Ministry spokesman said, adding that the commission's failure to correct its "mistake" was viewed with grave concern. In contrast, Eritrean state media has carried reports proclaiming its victory in Badme.

Observers are concerned that the stand-off could deteriorate and bring an end to a peace deal struck in Algiers in 2001. "This is a very sensitive time," said a senior Western diplomat in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

Most of the 620-mile border is now peaceful but Badme remains a sticking point. The commission failed to pinpoint Badme's location when it issued its findings one year ago; then clarified that, under a 1902 Italian colonial treaty, it belonged in Eritrea.

This ruling provoked Ethiopian officials, who issued veiled threats of violence if physical demarcation of the new border went ahead in July.

"It is possible there will be trouble when they come to put the pillars in. We cannot imagine the consequences," Tsirgay Berhe, President of the Tigray region, said. The threats have alarmed peace workers in the region. An official working for the United Nations in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, admitted: "We are a bit lost. It is not clear where to go from here."

One possible solution under consideration is to put Badme under international supervision while the remainder of the border is demarcated. But those behind the plan were not optimistic. "Personally I don't think it would work. But we don't have any better ideas," said the UN official.

Badme has crystallised rivalries between the neighbours, who once fought together to overthrow the Communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.

Both countries can ill afford further confrontation. More than 11 million Ethiopians and 1.4 million Eritreans – 40 per cent of the population – are at risk of starvation this year because of a severe drought. "We Can't Afford Another War" read the headline on an article in the Addis Tribune newspaper.

Many ordinary people feel the same way. At Binbina, an Eritrean village populated by displaced families from the Badme area, elderly farmers lamented the war.

"If there is no demarcation we can never go back," said Andom Mehanjel, 75, who lost a son in the fighting and is dependent on food aid from the World Food Programme. "We just pray to God that war will not come again."

But Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, is under intense pressure to claim Badme. Ethiopia won the war, but at a massive cost – his army lost an estimated 60,000 troops.

Opposition politicians have accused President Zenawi of being "soft" on Eritrea – partly, they say, because his family comes from there.