UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
DJIBOUTI: IRIN Focus on mounting tension with Eritrea
NAIROBI, 12 November (IRIN) - Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh, elected in May, on Thursday warned of deteriorating relations between his country and Eritrea. In a BBC interview, he accused Eritrea of supporting Djiboutian rebels and said the two countries were "almost in a state of war".
Djibouti, whose Red Sea port is a vital lifeline for landlocked Ethiopia, risks becoming embroiled in the 18-month Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict, regional analysts said. However, an Eritrean spokesman told IRIN on Friday the new allegations were "ridiculous".
At the outbreak of the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Djibouti attempted to mediate between the two former allies. But now it is regarded as a close ally of Ethiopia. "It's become an extension", claimed Kidane Woldeyesus, spokesman for the Eritrean Embassy in Kenya.
Djibouti severed diplomatic relations with Eritrea nearly a year ago, after Asmara accused it during an OAU summit of taking part in the war on Ethiopia's side. The two countries have since then been at loggerheads, despite Djibouti's professed neutrality. In the BBC interview, Guelleh said "the port of Djibouti is a free port... free to anybody'.
In a joint statement last week confirming their close relations in many fields, Ethiopia and Djibouti expressed "their grave concern over the continued destabilising and terrorist activities directed at the two countries". The statement did not name any country or group, but in a speech to the Ethiopian parliament, Guelleh accused Eritrea of aggression, the Associated Press reported.
He further told the BBC "they [Eritrea] are pushing a few rebels to create instability". A statement from the Ethiopian foreign ministry said the two countries agreed in October "to jointly safeguard the peace and security of the common border".
Djibouti, a tiny arid nation of under one million people, borders Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea. Sixty percent of the population is ethnic Somali, while about 35 percent is Afar, an ethnic group also present in Ethiopia and Eritrea. France, which provides significant support to its former colony, independent since 1977, maintains about 3,000 troops there at one of its largest overseas bases. A low-level conflict has been simmering between the government and Afar rebels since 1991, but Guelleh dismissed the rebellion this week as "one man and his two kids only".
Djibouti rebel leader Ahmed Dini of the Front pour la restauration de l'unite et la democratie (FRUD-"combattant") told IRIN that France conducted military exercises near the Eritrean border as recently as last week, which he said was a "message for Eritrea", as France was committed to defending Djibouti.
A western diplomat familiar with the region told IRIN that a recent visit to Djibouti by French army chief of staff General Jean-Pierre Kelche indicated that France would not "stand idly by" in the event of trouble. Eritrean spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel has denied that Eritrea has troops either in Djibouti or on the border. Fears of Djibouti being drawn into the conflict led France to reinforce its naval and air forces last year.
The diplomat added that Ethiopia and Djibouti have a "symbiotic relationship". Ethiopia needs Djibouti's port for imports and exports, while Djibouti's revenue has rocketed from the five-fold increase in Ethiopian cargo traffic since the start of the war, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. Ethiopia had previously used the Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab, but it is now largely dependent on Djibouti.
Ethiopia's regional diplomacy seems intent on isolating Eritrea and securing its flanks. Analysts point out Addis Ababa has steadily improved relations with Sudan since the outbreak of the war with Eritrea, while directly pursuing military and political objectives within Somalia.
Ethiopia and Eritrea are accused by observers of exploiting tensions in neighbouring states, such as Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti, to suit their overall military strategy. In a speech to the UN General Assembly in September, Guelleh, the Ethiopia-born successor to Hassan Gouled Aptidon, protested "incursions and landmines", without blaming Eritrea directly.
In a counter-claim, Ahmed Dini of FRUD told IRIN that Ethiopian troops were patrolling in the north of Djibouti last month, independently of Djiboutian forces. But he denied receiving any support from Eritrea, claiming his forces were nonetheless active in "resistance".
Eritrea and Djibouti seemed at the brink of conflict in April 1996, when a Djibouti official claimed that Eritrea had shelled a border post at Ras Dumeira. Other reports suggested that Eritrea claimed some Djibouti territory in the area as its own. Eritrea denied the incidents and any territorial claims. "It was an allegation of something that never happened. In the end, we chose to forget it... There is no border problem," Eritrean presidential spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel told IRIN on Friday.
Djibouti retracted the allegations in May 1996. Some accounts of the issue suggest that an Eritrean tourist map mistakenly included a border agreed between France and Mussolini's Italy in the 1930s, incorporating territory between Ras Dumeira and Moulouthe which is not the present-day border.
[See the IRIN Special Horn of Africa Report at http://www.reliefweb.int/IRIN/cea/countrystories/other/19990514.htm for background on the regional dimensions of the conflict.]
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Editor: Dr. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Ph.D
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