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Horn of Africa: War Clouds Gathering
Nov 6, 2005 (051106)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
The commander of the UN force on the disputed border between
Ethiopia and Eritrea, Maj-Gen. Rajender Singh, last week described
the situation as "tense and potentially volatile," the strongest
language used by UN Mission officials in the five years the force
has been in place. When pressed by a journalist to be more
explicit, General Singh stressed that urgent action was needed by the
Security Council to avoid the threat of a return to war.
Both governments have used the conflict in attempts to distract
attention from internal issues of democracy and human rights. After
agreeing to international arbitration, Ethiopia subsequently
refused to implement the ruling by an international Boundary
Commission in 2002. The current build-up of tension has been
sparked by an Eritrean decision to bar UN helicopters from sectors
of the border zone. At the same time, adding to the generally tense
atmosphere, in an unrelated dispute over the outcome of the May
2005 elections, more than 40 people have been killed by Ethiopian
security forces following opposition demonstrations in the capital.
Critics say that major powers have been hesitant to put sufficient
pressure on the Ethiopian government, on either internal issues or
the border conflict, because of the country's size and strategic
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains a news release from the United
Nations following a Security Council decision to send a high-level
envoy to the region, and excerpts from the press conference by the
UN Force Commander Singh and the Secretary-General's Special
Representative, Ambassador Legwaila Joseph Legwaila.
For detailed updates from UN and other sources, see
http://www.reliefweb.int For additional background and analysis on
the border conflict, see http://www.africafocus.org/docs04/horn0401.php and
http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=2301. For earlier
AfricaFocus Bulletins and additional background on Ethiopia, see
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please help AfricaFocus reach more people with reliable information
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++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++
UN envoy to visit Ethiopia and Eritrea as tensions mount
United Nations News Service (http://www.un.org/News)
03 Nov 2005
Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the United Nations Security
Council today strongly urged Eritrea and Ethiopia to refrain any
threat or use of force as a UN envoy prepared to visit the region,
where tensions are rising between the two formerly warring
Reports from the UN peacekeeping mission in the area (UNMEE)
indicate military movements in both countries advancing towards the
Temporary Security Zone (TSZ), while Eritrea has maintained its
flight ban against the UN, hampering the world body's peace
operations and prompting a senior UN official there to question
whether the mission can remain viable without the cooperation of
one of the parties.
Mr. Annan, who briefed the 15-member Council in a closed session,
said afterwards that all are appealing for calm and are in contact
with the leaders concerned.
In remarks to the press, he added that he had spoken to Ethiopian
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi today and would personally go to the
region if necessary.
"We are seeking other measures to try and get our message through,
to try and improve the situation on the ground so that we can carry
out our mandate," he said, adding, "Obviously if we had been able
right from the beginning to implement the decision of the Border
Commission we wouldn't be here now, but we are caught in a
Holding the Council's monthly rotating presidency for November,
Ambassador Andrey Denisov of Russia told journalists that the
15-member body was "deeply concerned" about reports received from
UNMEE that Ethiopia and Eritrea are moving military personnel on
both sides of the TSZ.
Council members were also deeply concerned by "the unacceptable
restrictions imposed on UNMEE, which must be lifted, and the
continued impasse in the implementation of the decision of the
Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission."
The Council authorized the Chairman of its Working Group on
Peacekeeping Operations, Ambassador Kenzo Oshima of Japan, to visit
UNMEE from next Sunday to next Wednesday. He told journalists that
his assignment was limited to reviewing the mission's concerns,
speaking to the troop commanders and reporting back to the Council.
After Eritrea prohibited UN helicopters from flying through its air
space early last month, UNMEE also reported increased restrictions
last month on the movements of its ground patrols in certain areas,
especially after dusk.
In the Eritrean capital, Asmara, the UNMEE chief, Ambassador
Legwaila Joseph Legwaila, and Force Commander Maj-Gen. Rajender
Singh described for journalists the military changes on both sides
of the TSZ between the two Horn of Africa countries.
General Singh said that in Ethiopia the concentration of troops has
increased and they have moved about 20 to 30 kilometres closer to
the Zone. Tanks which had been located deep inside Ethiopia have
advanced about 10 kilometres closer to the TSZ, while other tanks
have been seen in areas where they were not previously located.
On the Eritrean side, he said, the restrictions on freedom of
movement expand daily, as well as incursions into the TSZ by armed
personnel who identify themselves as militia but are unwilling to
show the required identity cards.
Mr. Legwaila stressed that if the peacekeepers are not allowed to
do their job, the UN will have to make some hard decisions, such as
determining whether consent for the Mission to operate in its
assigned area is being withdrawn by one of the parties.
"The Council must decide: is it useful to keep pouring $200 million
into maintaining a mission which is not allowed to do its work?" he
Meanwhile, UNMEE said, its peacekeepers continued to provide
medical assistance to the local population, along with supplies of
bulk water to civilian communities in the TSZ and the Adjacent
Areas. Some 253,900 litres of water were supplied to the civilian
communities in the past week.
But on Tuesday, for the third time since the ban on UNMEE
helicopter flights came into effect on 5 October, a request for
clearance from the Eritrean Authorities for aerial medical
evacuation of a peacekeeper had met with no response, the mission
United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea
Media Briefing Transcript - 3 November 2005
[Excerpts only. For full transcript and other background
information see the UNMEE website (http://www.unmeeonline.org).]
The military situation in the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) and the
Adjacent Areas is tense and potentially volatile. The ban imposed
by the Eritrean Government on UNMEE helicopters continues to be in
place. This week a large number of troop movements have been
noticed on both the Ethiopian and Eritrean sides of the border. A
considerable number of restrictions have been placed on the
movement of UNMEE personnel inside the Temporary Security Zone, in
Sectors Center and West. Movement by the UNMEE Force in certain
areas and patrolling at night has also been curtailed. ...
Questions & Answers
Question [From Addis Ababa]: When you say the situation in the
Temporary Security Zone and the Adjacent Areas is tense and
potentially volatile, can you just expand on that and tell us what
you mean? Does that mean there is a risk of war? Certainly in the
time I have been here in Ethiopia, this is language that UNMEE has
never used. Is that the case or has there been a situation in the
past that has been "tense and potentially volatile?"
Force Commander [Major-General Rajender Singh]: ... UNMEE has been
here for the last 5 years and we have successfully been able not
only to separate the two armed forces, but also to create a
Temporary Security Zone, (TSZ) monitor the TSZ effectively and
ensure that a peaceful environment has prevailed, until now.
Things have changed slightly since then. What has actually happened
is that our capability to monitor the TSZ has been restricted. Our
capability to see, observe verify and monitor has in fact gone down
by 60 per cent. I will not go into the details as to why this has
happened. I have already explained that during my earlier meetings
with the press. We have seen some additional movement of troops on
the Ethiopian side, some preparation of defenses, movement of
troops, movement of other army formations, details of which in many
cases have been shared by the Ethiopian authorities with us. This
is coupled with the fact that the restrictions on the freedom of
movement of our peacekeepers on the ground (are) also taking place
inside the TSZ. On the Eritrean side, we have seen some cases in
which some armed troops or some armed personnel who called
themselves militia, are also deployed in some of the areas. We have
also seen some large concentrations of troops in the "depth areas"
in Eritrea. All these factors are actually creating the kind of
environment in which the two sides who used to bank totally on our
information system, of which they were quite confident that UNMEE
would be able to monitor, and report if there is anything
(untoward,) that confidence level has gone down on both sides, and
with this kind of environment, it is natural that there are
suspicions on both sides. When you have suspicions, there is
tension and that's why we are calling the situation "tense" and
potentially volatile, (because we believe) if this tension is not
addressed it could become volatile tomorrow.
Question [From Addis Ababa]: What do you mean by volatile - does
that mean war, does that mean shooting at each other, does that
mean shouts across the TSZ - What does volatile mean?
Force Commander: All of what you have described.
Question [From Addis Ababa]: So you are saying that the potentially
volatile situation could lead to a renewed outbreak of war?
Force Commander: At its worst yes, but I am also not saying that
things which are happening today will lead tomorrow to war. No, I
am (using the term) potentially volatile, that is, if you do not
take measures and if the international community doesn't address
it, maybe the situation may in fact deteriorate to that level in
which the worst can happen; and the worst is war, of course.
Question [From Asmara]: In the briefing it says that "the situation
is tense and volatile". Is it the first time ever that UNMEE (has)
used that expression instead the usual one which is "stable". Is it
the first time since UNMEE was created (that this expression has
Spokeswoman: We have used the term 'tense' before because the
situation has been 'tense' before. We have never used the
(expression) "potentially volatile." No, this is the first time we
are using it and, I think, the FC has very adequately explained
Question [From Asmara]: When things are becoming "tense and
potentially volatile," does it mean that the situation is becoming
out of UNMEE's control?
Force Commander: As far as the military situation is concerned, the
onus of responsibility of having a military situation in control
lies with the two parties. UNMEE is here to assist the two parties
in observing, in verifying and monitoring that the situation
remains well under control. Up until this moment, with the
cooperation of the two sides, we have had the situation well under
control and that's why we used to call it "stable and peaceful." Of
late, there have been some developments which are a cause of
concern, including the ban on UNMEE flights, the troop movements on
the Ethiopian side, developments inside the Temporary Security
Zone, and some movements on the Eritrean side. All these
developments do affect the security situation and I have already
mentioned the kind of an impact that this kind of development will
Let me tell you that despite the ban on the helicopters and despite
the degradation of our monitoring capabilities, my troops are
working day and night. Night whenever permitted. We have been
increasing our patrolling. We are fully committed on both sides to
ensuring (that) we have a fairly peaceful environment in the TSZ
and Adjacent Areas. Let me also mention that I have been receiving
total transparency and a great amount of assistance from both
Commissioners. (for coordination with the peacekeeping mission) I
hope this cooperation will continue, however that does not really
mean that movements are not taking place on both sides which are,
in fact, a source of concern.
Question [From Addis Ababa]: I would not dare to say that the
situation is under control because when there was war between
Ethiopia and Eritrea I have visited the frontline. I have been
there. UNMEE Forces are still vacating from Aromo, Monoxito,
Ambasa Geleba, Bada and also from Bure side and also in Sector West
from many strategic places. How do we dare to say the situation is
under control? At any time any thing can happen because these the
troops of these two parties are confronting each other and the
Force Commander: I agree with you totally. It pains my heart when
I withdraw troops and therefore I would once again, through the
medium of this press conference, appeal to Eritrea to withdraw the
ban on helicopters, to enable us to divert back to these places
that you have mentioned. It is a great honor for a soldier to be
asked to come and help these two countries, especially (the peace
process between) two great nations like Eritrea and Ethiopia. UNMEE
forces here are functioning with the same attitude, but I would
like to mention that these withdrawals from these places have taken
place because of urgent operational restraints which have been put
on us because of the helicopter ban. I had given the reasons behind
this (decision) in the last meeting that I had with the press. We
would be more than happy to ensure that we revert back to those
remote places, but for this (to happen) operational conditions
including the lifting of the ban is a must. Regarding your other
point that both sides need to do something: the international
community needs to do something. Ambassador Legwaila has time and
again mentioned this and we have got nothing further to add to
Spokeswoman: I would just like to draw your attention to the
Secretary-General's statement of yesterday. In that, the
Secretary-General has asked urged the Security Council and
individual member states to take decisive steps to diffuse the
escalating tension. So I think there is an appeal for something to
Question (Asmara): Why do you think there hasn't been war already
and what's stopping the two countries from going to war now? Do you
think they have lost the element of surprise?
Force Commander: No, I have great faith in the leaders of Africa.
I think wise counsel will prevail and that both countries, as the
Secretary-General has requested, will exercise restraint. A soldier
is the last man who thinks of war. I think that a war should not
break out. Especially these two countries realize what kind of
implications war may bring: destruction to men and material, and
also to the development of the two countries.
[Press Conference was joined by SRSG Legwaila Joseph Legwaila]
Question (Asmara): SRSG would it be possible to get some kind of
idea or the flavour of the discussions in New York, in particular
some kind of explanation on the dilemma perhaps, or the discussions
going on about the position to take vis-…-vis Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Some diplomats are saying that on the one hand one wants to get the
helicopters up and flying again and on the other hand, people do
not want to be seen to be rewarding Eritrea for this behaviour by
putting pressure on Ethiopia to demarcate the border?
SRSG: I do not think there is a dilemma in the Security Council.
The Security Council has been warned about the stalemate for a very
long time. They were warned by me, warned by the Secretary General,
warned by Under-Secretary-General Mr. Jean Marie Gu‚henno. So I do
not know where the dilemma arises because I do not think there is
any confusion as to the nature of the stalemate and why (there is)
a stalemate. There is no confusion about the fact that one of the
parties has banned our helicopter flights. I do not know why
anybody would be confused by the fact that right now we are not
even allowed to evacuate people who have been invited by Eritrea
and Ethiopia to come here to serve the cause of peace. I have asked
the Government if they could do it themselves, if they do not allow
us to do it. They have neither agreed to do it themselves nor
allowed us to do it with our helicopters. These two issues are very
clear, there should be no confusion and I can assure you there is
no confusion in the Security Council that there is a stalemate
which needs to be dealt with if we are not about to see the
reignition of the conflict which ended in 2000. If the helicopters
are not allowed to fly, one of these days there will be a dead
soldier, a dead soldier because we cannot evacuate him or her.
What is at stake is that three years have passed since the decision
of the Boundary Commission was rendered and it has not been
implemented. Now we are faced with one of the parties banning our
helicopter flights, and as I have repeatedly said, the stalemate
has absolutely nothing to do with UNMEE. We are not responsible for
implementing the decision of the Boundary Commission. That
responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of Eritrea and
Ethiopia and the Boundary Commission - not UNMEE. So why is UNMEE
being punished, why are these soldiers who have come here to
sacrifice their lives for the cause of peace being subjected to the
kind of vagaries of nature that they are being subjected to?
So let no one be mistaken as to what the stakes are and as the
Secretary-General pointed out, if the peacekeeping mission is not
allowed to do the job for which they have been invited here to do,
obviously the Security Council will have to take a very hard
decision. Is it useful to keep the Mission in place when consent
for it to do its job without interference is being withdrawn and
when the decision of the Boundary Commission is not being
implemented? This is the question which the Security Council, one
if these days, must ask itself.
Question (Asmara): Does that mean that now you expect the UN
Security Council to pass a meaningful resolution or a stronger
resolution than in previous occasions and if not what do you
SRSG: The Security Council has been written a letter by the
Secretary-General- as those of you who have read it will know- and
the Security Council, owes the Secretary-General a response. The
Secretary-General called for urgent action on the crisis we face.
In other words, the Security Council has its work cut out. The
Security Council, I must repeat, is not confused as to what needs
to be done, absolutely not. The stalemate, as I have told them a
long time ago, it is not a new thing. The banning of helicopter
flights is a new thing. Very soon it will be one month since the
helicopter flights were banned and therefore the Security Council
has been asked by the Executive Officer of the United Nations, the
Secretary-General, to take action in the discharge of their
responsibilities as the people who are responsible, according to
the Charter, for the maintenance of international peace and
security. Therefore that challenge - that clarion call - is still
there for them to take action. ...
Question (Asmara): Ambassador Legwaila, if peacekeepers die because
they have not been evacuated by helicopters would you recommend
that the Mission leave if this happens?
SRSG: As I have said, the Secretary General says if the
peacekeepers are not allowed to do their job, the United Nations
will have to take very hard decisions and those hard decisions
would have to make a determination as to whether consent is being
withdrawn. This is a Mission under Chapter 6. The only way we can
do our work is to have the consent of both parties, not one, the
consent of both parties. If that consent is being withdrawn, not
necessarily by both parties, but even by one party, (then the
Council will need to examine) whether we are still able to carry
out our mandate. If we are not, then the Security Council must
decide (what happens next.) Is it useful to keep pouring $200
million to maintaining a mission which is not allowed to do its
work? I think simple logic would tell you that that decision would
have to be taken by the Security Council.
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