April 11, 2002
On the eve of a crucial border ruling, the head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) has spoken of a "new chapter" in relations between the two countries.
Legwaila Joseph Legwaila, who is the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, told IRIN that the impending announcement on Saturday by an independent Boundary Commission was a chance for peace for both countries.
"I am an African, and these are two African countries which have shed a lot of blood in the war that ended in 2000," he said in the Eritrean capital, Asmara. "Therefore I will be the happiest man on earth if the decision is announced and we go forward to help them demarcate the border and thereafter live in peace as neighbours."
"The decision is the start of a new chapter for Ethiopia and Eritrea and to tell you the truth, in advance of the announcement of the decision, I wish them the best," he added.
In 1998, Ethiopia and Eritrea, which are among the poorest countries in the world, began a bloody two-year border war that cost thousands of lives. In December 2000, they signed the Algiers Peace Agreement. Under the terms of the agreement, both sides agreed to allow some 4,200 UN peacekeepers to patrol a 25 km-wide buffer area, known as the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ).
They also agreed to the establishment of an independent Boundary Commission in The Hague which would rule on border delimitation, to be followed by the physical demarcation. The verdict, they agreed, would be final and binding with no right of appeal.
"It is a decision that is the whole raison d'etre for the peace process," said Legwaila, who was appointed to head UNMEE in September 2000.
"The peace process is supposed to culminate in the normalisation of the boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia and the normalisation ... is the opening of a new chapter for peaceful relations between the two countries," he said. "That's why the decision is very important."
Legwaila said the ruling was also crucial for UNMEE. "What it means for UNMEE is that the two parties have succeeded in resolving their dispute, that is if there is no problem with the decision," he stated. "It would mean that UNMEE has been able to help the two parties solve their border problem, at least so far as delimitation is concerned because the border still has to be demarcated."
He also said UNMEE would maintain a strong presence for many months to come while the physical demarcation of the border was carried out. "UNMEE's role is not drawing to an end," he told IRIN. "Our mandate only terminates with the planting of the last pillar on the border.
"Therefore we still have lots of months to be here, to continue to keep the forces of the two sides separated while the boundary is demarcated...We are not winding down simply because the decision of the Boundary Commission will be announced on Saturday."
UNMEE has been been asked by the commission to "take the lead" in removing mines so that the border can be marked. "If the decision is announced on Saturday and we are told by the president of the Boundary Commission that we should go ahead with demining for demarcation, we will do so," he added.
"As far as we are concerned we have virtually demined access roads, not for demarcation, but we have been demining access roads because we use these roads in our patrolling of the Temporary Security Zone," Legwaila said. "Therefore all we would need to do is demine the areas where the pillars are planted." He noted that if the resources were available, the demining should not take too long.
According to Legwaila, despite the fact that the ruling was just days away, there were no signs of tension along the border. "Our people in the field on both sides of the border of the Temporary Security Zone have not reported anything unusual, no unusual activity by the two sides," he said. "So everybody seems to be at peace with themselves awaiting the decision on Saturday."
He added that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan would make an announcement about the ruling on Saturday.
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