Global Policy Forum

Rebels Bring Risk to Peacekeeping Mission

November 16, 2000

The U.N. Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea is now preparing to deploy 4,200 soldiers into the rocky Horn of Africa region. While both countries have agreed to a cease-fire, animosity remains. In addition, several insurgent groups in Ethiopia and neighboring Sudan may be attracted to the fresh arms and supplies the United Nations will need to complete its mission. Analysis

The United Nations is about to launch another massive peacekeeping mission in Africa. Final preparations began the week of Nov. 7 for the deployment of approximately 4,200 soldiers to monitor a Temporary Security Zone along the 620-mile Eritrean-Ethiopian border.

Despite extensive preparations and an elite U.N. force at the core of the mission, several complications could undermine the security of U.N. troops. Simmering hostilities between Addis Ababa and Asmara have yet to be resolved, and the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces from Eritrea will likely involve at least low-level violence.

More important, numerous rebel groups in the region could benefit greatly by capturing supplies intended for the Blue Helmets. The well-armed peacekeepers may be able to preserve security along the border; however, it may be nearly impossible to ensure the security of vital transport routes.

Five years after Eritrean independence from Ethiopia, inequitable trade and access to vital Red Sea ports fueled a border dispute that eventually led to the outbreak of war. Despite a 1999 cease- fire agreement, fighting flared again in May 2000, resulting in Ethiopian forces capturing territory several miles inside Eritrea.

The U.N. Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) is mandated to monitor the withdrawal of those Ethiopian soldiers. It is also responsible for monitoring the cessation of all hostilities, maintaining the 15-mile buffer zone within Eritrea that divides the two combatant nations, coordinating humanitarian activities and facilitating the demarcation of the border as a prerequisite for the mission's completion.

Led by seasoned Royal Netherlands Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Patrick Cammaert, the Multinational Stand-by High Readiness Brigade, known as Shirbrig, will make up the core of the UNMEE force. In addition to numerous support staff, including engineers and logistics personnel, the mission will be armed with four Royal Netherlands Air Force AH-64 Apache helicopters, four CH-47D Chinook transport helicopters and an amphibious landing ship at the Eritrean port of Massawa, Jane's International Defense Review reported Nov. 1.

Regardless of the UNMEE's force capability, several elements could pose a threat. The withdrawal of the Ethiopian forces will likely be one of the first problems UNMEE will encounter.

Ethiopian forces are deployed several miles into Eritrea territory, having captured numerous strategic locations during the recent bout of fighting. And since the final border demarcation has yet to be decided, Ethiopian forces may not willingly abandon areas they feel are part of their territory. As they withdraw, there likely will be low-level skirmishes with returning Eritrea forces.

Even if Ethiopian and Eritrean forces refrain from fighting, several rebel groups within the region could endanger the peacekeeping force. Located both inside Ethiopia and across the border in Sudan, these groups may find the allure of Western aid and supplies too great to resist.

In Ethiopia, six opposition parties with militias recently formed an umbrella political organization, the United Oromo Front. The group will unite its militias to form the United Oromo Army as well, reported the Ethiopian newspaper, Ethiop.

These groups have been fighting in an attempt to overthrow the Ethiopian government. One of the groups, the Oromo Liberation Front, claimed in early November to have killed 35 Ethiopian soldiers, Eritrean radio reported Nov. 7.

While the majority of the groups operate in southern Ethiopia, they receive support from ethnic Oromos, who make up 40 percent of Ethiopia's population and are located throughout the country.

Not only will the UNMEE be forced to consider Ethiopia's internal rebel groups, it also may be forced to contend with Sudanese rebel groups that allegedly cross from Sudan into Eritrea regularly.

While the rebels have never been known to attack the numerous humanitarian agencies operating within Sudan, peacekeepers with arms alter the equation. The Sudanese Army fought rebels in Kassala, with a major road into the Eritrean town of Teseney, less than 50 miles from the U.N.-monitored Temporary Security Zone.

On a more pragmatic level, Ethiopia and Eritrea are two of the world's poorest countries. This makes all supplies especially modern armaments brought into either country enticing targets for any rebel group aggressive or desperate enough to try hijacking U.N.-protected supply routes.

Several options for transit routes can be established. The UNMEE has likely examined the options and chosen the most direct, logistically simple and secure routes. Nonetheless, supply trucks traversing the long, perilous roads from Eritrean ports to the border and through the port at Djibouti to the Ethiopian capital would be difficult to protect against marauding rebel groups.

Following the peacekeeping debacle in Sierra Leone, the United Nations apparently has taken extra pains to ensure the security of the UNMEE. This will ensure the UNMEE is capable of maintaining the buffer between Ethiopian and Eritrean forces. Still, a number of secondary threats could make the mission quite difficult.

More Information on Ethiopia and Eritrea


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