May 11, 2004
Following Eritrean accusations that the UN peacekeepers patrolling the Ethiopian-Eritrean border had become a "grave danger" to the regional peace, the UN today issued an ultimatum to the two governments. Eritrean and Ethiopian authorities now needed to state clearly whether they wanted the peacekeepers to stay, the UN demands. During a meeting of the Military Coordination Commission in Nairobi, high military representatives of the UN, Eritrea and Ethiopia spoke out about the growing row between the parties. The UN representative, Major-General Robert Gordon, made it clear that his peacekeeping mission - the UN Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) - now needed renewed outspoken support from the governments of the two countries.
UNMEE has been frustrated by lack of progress since it was established to oversee the fragile Ethiopian-Eritrean peace in 2001. As Ethiopia last year refused to accept a final international court ruling on the exact position of the border, the mission's border demarcation operation has made little progress. In particular Ethiopia was hindering the process. Last week, however, attention was turned to Eritrea, whose government issued a sharp note, protesting grave alleged crimes committed by UNMEE. The UN troops allegedly were housing wanted Eritrean criminals, were into child prostitution and were spreading pornography. All in all, UNMEE now had become a "grave danger" to the "peace and stability of the people and government of Eritrea, as well as the security and stability of our region," the Eritreans concluded.
UNMEE representatives immediately reacted with "shock" over the Eritrean allegations and noted that the troops "of course acknowledge that we are guests in Eritrea." They added that: "When a guest is no longer welcome in a house, it is the prerogative of the host to decide what to do next." At the Nairobi meeting, UNMEE Force Commander Gordon repeated the UN's "shock" over "these unjust allegations" when addressing the Eritrean and Ethiopian military delegations. Major-General Gordon said the peace process had deteriorated and expressed concern about the absence of progress towards demarcation and the restrictions on the mission's freedom of movement.
He thus asked both delegations to "state clearly whether they wanted the mission to stay or leave," according to an UNMME statement. Mr Gordon further "warned that this was a question that would increasingly be asked in the future" and indicated that the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments needed to be clear on this issue. The leader of Eritrea's military delegation at the Nairobi meeting, Brigadier-General Abrahaley Kifle, gave a preliminary positive answer to Mr Gordon's question. The Eritrean representative denied that his government's attitude towards UNMEE had changed and stressed that they had never intended to harm the UN mission's work. However, Mr Kifle emphasised on the frustration experienced by the Eritrean part. According to the Brigadier-General, UNMEE was not cooperating regarding registration of its nationally-employed staff, which was "a threat to Eritrean security." After all, he added, it was the Ethiopian party that had "withdrawn from the peace process," thus frustrating the UN's effort, he held.
The Ethiopian representative, Brigadier-General Yohannes Gebremeskel, on the other hand expressed the clear support of his government to the UN peacekeepers' work and mission. Ethiopia, he said, was appreciating the work UNMEE had been doing and praised the UN mission for "remaining calm and tolerant in a tense political environment." Brigadier Gebremeskel was critical of what he described as the "hostile propaganda" from Eritrean authorities, particularly that recently directed against UNMEE. This did "not benefit anyone," he added.
The UN peacekeeping mission was established after the 1998-2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean border war, which is believed to have killed up to 100,000 persons. The UN, US and EU helped negotiate a peace, but its implementation has been met with resistance, especially since a court ruling on the final border last year proved favourable to Eritrea. While Ethiopia still refuses to acknowledge last year's border settlement, the Eritrean government has grown increasingly frustrated. Authorities in Asmara have accused the African Union (AU) of not living up to its duties as one of the guarantors of the peace and in November last year recalled their ambassador to the AU. Eritrea also recently denied a UN emissary entrance to the country, fearing he would propose changes to the border ruling.
At UN headquarters, patience is running out. The UN Security Council only last week called on Eritrea and Ethiopia to cooperate with UN emissaries and with one another in demarcating a boundary between the two countries, criticising the two foes for the lack of progress towards peace. The Security Council nevertheless extended the mandate of the peacekeeping mission in the frontier area until 15 September.
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