The clashes coincided with the latest diplomatic effort to break the stalemate in peace efforts, stalled since the August release of a third OAU peace document, the 'Technical Arrangements'. US special envoy Anthony Lake met Eritrean President Isias Afewerki on Wednesday, and was to hold further meetings with the two sides along with with Algerian OAU envoy Ahmed Ouyahia. Lake and Ouyahia were due to meet Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in Addis Ababa on Thursday afternoon. The current US-OAU missions follow inconclusive visits to both countries in February by EU special envoy Rino Serri and Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi.
Wednesday's "skirmishes" subsided the same day, according to Ethiopian spokeswoman Selome Tadesse, while Eritrean spokesman Yemane Ghebremeskel told news agencies the attack was "on the "extreme left flank" [presumably eastern flank] of the Bure front, which is near to the Eritrean port of Assab and both countries' borders with Djibouti. Both sides blame the other for starting the clash which, according to Eritrea, left 200 Ethiopian troops dead. Selome declined to comment on casualties.
Despite a lull in the fighting for several months, the propaganda war has continued. A 19 February statement by the core element of the Ethiopian ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), translated by the pro-government Walta website, stated: "the only alternative left to us in the face of such a war policy of the Eritrean regime is to defend our sovereignty by force."
Both countries have significant humanitarian needs relating to drought and displacement caused by the war, and UN humanitarian appeals for Eritrea (US $ 42 million) and Ethiopia (US $ 190 million) were launched in January. The new fighting highlights long-running problems in implementing a peace framework to which both sides say they have formally agreed.
There are now three documents on the table in the peace process. The first - the OAU's 11-point 'Framework Agreement' - was endorsed by the OAU summit in Burkina Faso in June 1998, a month after hostilities first broke out. This was followed in July 1999 at the OAU summit in Algiers by the 'Modalities' for implementing the framework agreement. The following month, another implementation document, the 'Technical Arrangements', was introduced, drawn up by an OAU technical committee. This, diplomats and analysts agree, is the sticking point.
Both countries have accepted the 'Framework' and the 'Modalities'. Eritrea has also accepted the 'Technical Arrangements', but the Ethiopian government says the document is "deficient on a number of counts". The Ethiopian consul in Nairobi, Mengistu Ayalew, told IRIN in a recent interview that apart from introducing elements likely to undermine the OAU's role in the peace process, the document "does not fully guarantee a return to the status quo ante" and hence is "unacceptable" to Ethiopia. He said the 'Technical Arrangements' are "silent" on the specific areas to be evacuated by Eritrea.
"It undoes certain issues seemingly sorted out by the two prior documents," he said. Ethiopia particularly objects to a clause for setting up a UN peacekeeping mission - contrary to the 'Framework Agreement' which recommended the deployment of OAU military observers. It believes a UN force would undermine its sovereignty. "The mandate of such a force is completely of a different nature from the OAU military observers," Mengistu said. "Whereas the military observer group would observe and investigate the withdrawal of the Eritrean troops and the restoration of civilian administration, the peacekeeping force goes further than this because it has arms and can actually move in to keep peace between the warring parties."
The OAU has sought to reassure Ethiopia, by stressing that the organisation remains "at the centre of the process". However, it acknowledges that in practical terms it is "constrained in its logistic and financial means", which led to the new measures contained in the 'Technical Arrangements'. "The aim is to ensure the best conditions for the efficient and assured implementation of a settlement plan accepted by the two parties," the OAU said in a statement.
Eritrea, for its part, says it has no problem with the three documents. "They are very clear, follow logic, favour no side and are done by experts," the Eritrean embassy spokesman in Nairobi, Kidane Woldeyesus, told IRIN. "The 'Technical Arrangements' give the directives on who should do what, and when, how the peacekeeping mission should be deployed, when the demarcation should start."
A regional analyst told IRIN that the OAU has found itself in a "tight corner" where it cannot reformulate the 'Technical Arrangements', nor can it implement the document the way it is. "Whereas the process was moving at a snail's pace a few months ago, now it has ground to a halt," he said.
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