- A UN envoy is to visit Ethiopia and Eritrea as tensions mount and there are concerns over possible new warfare. Confidence is at a historic low since the peace agreement that ended the bloody 1998-2000 border war between the two neighbours and UN peacekeepers are prevented by Eritrea from monitoring the border.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the UN's Security Council yesterday evening strongly urged Eritrea and Ethiopia to "refrain any threat or use of force" as a UN envoy is preparing to visit the region. "Tensions are rising" between the two formerly warring neighbours, the UN notes.
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 yesterday briefed the 15-member Security 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 stalemate."
Current UN Security Council president Andrey Denisov of Russia told journalists that the body was "deeply concerned" about reports received from UNMEE that Ethiopia and Eritrea are moving military personnel on both sides of the TSZ.
Security Council members were also said to be 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." In particular Eritrea's decision to ban UN flights in parts of the border area has caused problems for UNMEE.
The Security Council authorised the Chairman of its Working Group on Peacekeeping Operations, 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 Major-General 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 UNMEE's 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 peacekeeping 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 US$ 200 million into maintaining a mission which is not allowed to do its work?" he said.
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