Eritrea-Ethiopia, 1, Wed, 28 Oct 1998

Eritrea-Ethiopia, 1, Wed, 28 Oct 1998

East Africa: Eritrea-Ethiopia, 1 Date distributed (ymd): 981028 Document reposted by APIC

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Region: East Africa Issue Areas: +security/peace+ Summary Contents: This posting contains part 1 of a special background report on the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict from the UN's Integrated Regional Information Network for Central and Eastern Africa (IRIN). Part 2 follows in a separate posting.

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UNITED NATIONS Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Integrated Regional Information Network for Central and Eastern Africa (IRIN) Tel: +254 2 622147 Fax: +254 2 622129 e-mail:

[This report is issued as a background document for the benefit of the humanitarian community only. It draws on a wide range of publicly-available sources and interviews conducted by IRIN in Ethiopia and Eritrea, but cannot be said to represent the views of the United Nations. It should not be directly quoted by media.]

ERITREA-ETHIOPIA: IRIN Special Background Report October 26 1998


"Senseless". "Appalling". "Completely unexpected". These are a few of the reactions from senior figures interviewed by IRIN in Ethiopia and Eritrea as their border war reaches a six-month stalemate. If they are surprised, their countries' friends, neighbours and investors are stunned. Profiled as dedicated strategists of African self-reliance, the two leaders, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi are now locked in a dangerous military showdown, anaylsts and diplomats say.

Last ditch diplomatic efforts are underway to avert a renewed outbreak of hostilities which flared up last May. A key OAU meeting in Burkina Faso has been shifted back several times to 7 November at the earliest, diplomatic sources say. A news blackout shrouded an early October mission to both capitals by US envoy, former US national security official Anthony Lake.

This paper from the IRIN network attempts to place the current situation in context, as a background report. As tensions remain high, and both sides reportedly are mobilising for war, it tries to draw attention to the potential impacts of a failure to reach a peaceful conclusion to the crisis.


The armies of Ethiopia and Eritrea clashed on their common border in May and June this year. The two countries had close ties, due to their historical links - Eritrea became officially independent from Ethiopia in 1993 - and the personal relationship between their two leaders. Isaias and Meles were fellow rebel leaders, heading two liberation fronts which in latter years cooperated to overthrow the military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Despite periods of ideological and tactical disagreement, Isaias' Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and Meles' Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), both formed in the mid-seventies, were the heart of the forces that defeated sub-Saharan Africa's then largest army in 1991.

The TPLF is the core of the multi-ethnic Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which now dominates the Ethiopian political scene. After Eritrean independence, overwhelmingly approved by a referendum in 1993, peacetime relations seemed set to remain firm.

Relations, however, noticeably deteriorated last year, when Eritrea launched its own currency and Ethiopia responded by insisting that cross-border trade be conducted in hard currency. Officials now claim that there had been other minor economic and political problems between the two sides, while Eritrea has recently revealed details of a hushed-up 1997 border clash at Bada in July 1997. Other causes of friction were new maps of Ethiopia's northern Tigray region, and an allegedly enlarged Ethiopian national map on the re-issued Ethiopian currency, the birr. Ethiopia's spokesperson, Selome Tadesse, however, dismissed earlier differences between the two as minor, saying "we had bigger issues to focus on."

Conflict broke out in May this year after disagreements over several points on the common border worsened, despite the creation of a joint border commission. Despite intensive peace efforts led by US and Rwandan facilitators, events escalated to a peak in early June, at which point land forces clashed heavily on three fronts (Badme, Zal Anbessa and Bure) and both sides exchanged air strikes.

Hundreds of soldiers were killed, up to 300,000 civilians have been displaced, schoolchildren were killed in an Eritrean air raid on Ethiopia's northern Tigray provincal capital of Mekelle and economic activity on both sides of the border has been disrupted. In the lull that has followed the June clashes, both sides have abided by a US-brokered moritorium on air strikes. Military clashes on the border have been kept to occasional artillery exchanges. Diplomatic efforts to broker an agreement are in a stalemate. The US-Rwanda plan originally asked the Eritrean forces to withdraw pending a final settlement, but Eritrea refused, saying it would only withdraw if the territory were demilitarised and controlled by a third force.

The mood in both countries is one of apprehension mixed with considerable anger and bitterness. The conflict-related migration of tens of thousands of civilians from each side has raised allegations of widespread human rights abuse and "ethnic cleansing". Military mobilisation has been accompanied by antagonistic propaganda from both sides. As the conflict drags on towards a sixth month, the prospects for peace are dim. Diplomatic rhetoric about an "African renaissance", led by younger leaders such as Meles and Isaias, is fatally undermined by the conflicts in the Horn and the Democratic Republic of Congo.


3.1 Humanitarian situation

Several hundred thousand people may already be displaced along both sides of the border, and official statistics say over 50,000 have migrated between the countries. Hundreds of thousands are considered affected - caring for or accomodating relatives displaced by war or conflict-related migration. The government institutions on each side are seeking a total of well over US $30 million to cope with the humanitarian impact. Humanitarian needs on each side have been met by a combination of local community resources, national, church, NGO and government institutions, and the efforts of international NGOs, UN agencies and donors.

Trade between the two countries has come to a halt. Ethiopia has yet to suffer shortages or significant price rises as a result of using ports other than Assab for its supplies, but a transport industry source says that Djibouti is likely to become "congested" with Ethiopian imports in coming months. The governor of the Eritrean port of Assab, cut off from the Ethiopian hinterland, says there is a "general shortage of supplies in the market", despite supplies arriving by sea.

3.2 Eritrea

The Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission (ERREC) has appealed for US $20 million for war-affected Eritreans - about half of which is a six-month food ration for affected people. While displaced and directly affected people are numbered at 100,000, a further 160,000 are classified by ERREC as having "fragile livelihoods worsened by the general state of war". A 4 September ERREC health and water supply appeal for both migrants and war-affected Eritreans is costed at an additional $5.6 million. The UN's September appeal for Eritrea amounted to $8.9 million. The UN's assessment of needs was the result of field visits by two teams of aid officials, and seeks food rations for about 100,000 affected people.

An ERREC official told IRIN the priority at present was to secure cash to supply migrant families with funds and food to repay borrowings from the Eritrean Grain Board. The three biggest international donors to the ERREC appeal so far are the US, the EU and Italy. ERREC is not only seeking to cope with the needs of the temporarily affected, but also is allocating land to migrants who are not returning to Ethiopia. Food distributions within Eritrea have included Ethiopian beneficiaries. A food distribution under the auspices of ERREC in Assab helped feed 10,000 Ethiopians and 4,500 Eritreans, local officials told IRIN.

3.3 Ethiopia

The Ethiopian Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC) reports that a total of 188,690 people are displaced due to the war in northern and eastern Ethiopia. Its 25 September appeal indicates needs for the next six months - until February 1999, which include 28,242 mt of food aid. Non-food needs are costed at 80 million Birr, about US $11.1 million. Following a week-long inter-agency assessment of needs, the UN agencies in Ethiopia devised a complementary response to part of the overall need in both food and non-food sectors. UN agencies are seeking US $4.1 million for emergency aid, complementary to the DPPC appeal. In Ethiopia, UN commitments already total $3.1 million.

Contributions from the public at home and abroad have been important for both countries, but observers say it is not always clear whether public donations are earmarked for humanitarian purposes or the more general war effort. The Ethiopian DPPC said that 71 million birr's worth of cash and goods had so far been donated - about US $10 million - but told donors that the breakdown between military and humanitarian fundraising could not immediately be provided.

3.4 Other humanitarian issues

About 64,000 mt of food aid cargo was in the Eritrean port of Assab at the start of the conflict in May, UN and diplomatic sources say. "It is not clear" where that food aid is now, a diplomat told IRIN. All of the food was destined for Ethiopia, some four million of whose citizens this year were due to receive some form of food assistance. WFP alone has 11,000 mt to account for - valued at US $2.2 million. US officials confirm 43,000 mt of their shipment was also in the port. So far, the Eritrean government has not clarified their policy towards the cargo. In the high temperatures of Assab, WFP is concerned the food "can't last much longer".

Ethiopia has insisted, through the International Maritime Organisation and the regional trade grouping COMESA, that Eritrea release all "import-export" goods that were in the ports.

3.5 Conflict-related migration

The conflict-related migration of Ethiopians and Eritreans arriving back in their home countries has become the most emotive issue of the war. When referring to a variety of population movements ranging from voluntary departures to forcible expulsions, IRIN may use in this and other reports the general term "conflict-related migration".

Both countries host large minorities of the other's citizens. About 130,000 Eritrean adults were registered in Ethiopia at the time of the independence referendum in 1993, but estimates of the total Eritrean population in Ethiopia range from 250,000 up to 500,000. The number of Ethiopians in Eritrea is estimated at around 100,000.

While the exact figures and the degree of coercion are disputed on both sides, it is clear that large numbers of people have been uprooted, repatriated, and are now living in temporary shelter or with relatives, disorientated and angry. The ICRC has been involved in "ensuring safe passage" of the migrants across the front lines on at least 18 occasions, but a carefully worded statement, issued last week, alluded to "recurrent humanitarian problems".

The Eritrean foreign ministry has announced that 30,000 Eritreans have come back from Ethiopia as of 21 October while Ethiopia says 27,000 of its citizens have returned as of 25 September, AP reports.

Human rights groups have criticised both governments for their treatment of civilians, but Ethiopia has come in for harsher criticism. Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged both governments to stop the "harassment and targeting" of civilians in a 17 June statement. HRW noted that the Ethiopian government had made an official demand on 14 June for Eritrean members of political and community organisations to leave. No such formal demand has been made by the Eritrean authorities on Ethiopians. A statement from the Eritrean ministry of foreign affairs on 25 September says, "Eritrea has no policy of expulsion of Ethiopian nationals". Ethiopia retorts that Eritrea makes life "intolerable for them [Ethiopians] while refusing them permission to leave". Both sides regard the treatment of migrants to be violations of human and economic rights, complaining of arrests, beatings and seizure of money and assets.

The ICRC also reports that it is able to visit civilian detainees in both countries, but regularly has access to prisoners of war only in Ethiopia. Reuniting unaccompanied minors with their families is part of the ICRC's work, while 700 Red Cross messages have been passed in and between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is proposing a human rights monitoring mission in both countries, perhaps in conjunction with the OAU, a UNHCHR official in Geneva told IRIN.

(continued in part 2)

[The material contained in this communication comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. UN IRIN Tel: +254 2 622123 Fax: +254 2 622129 e-mail: for more information or subscriptions. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. IRIN reports are archived on the WWW at: or can be retrieved automatically by sending e-mail to Mailing list: irin-cea-weekly]

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Message-Id: <> From: Date: Wed, 28 Oct 1998 16:09:50 -0500 Subject: East Africa: Eritrea-Ethiopia, 1

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar,