U.S. Again Presses for End to War in Horn of Africa
With air raids halted and ground fighting evidently stalemated, U.S. diplomats have decided to take another stab at persuading Eritrea and Ethiopia to end their heated border war and embrace a U.S.-Rwandan plan to settle differences by arbitration.
A group of U.S. diplomats was en route to this Ethiopian capital on Wednesday “to see if they can pry things off dead center,” said a diplomatic source. They might later travel to Asmara, the Eritrean capital, one official said.
“The proposal as it exists is still valid and still on the table,” said the source, referring to the U.S.-Rwandan initiative that would require the combatants to return to their positions of May 6, when the fighting started, then refer questions about the frontier to an international panel of experts.
But the Ethiopian government Wednesday accused Eritrea of opening a new front in the war by attacking an Ethiopian military post at Erde Mattios, a small town near the Tekeze River in northern Ethiopia. “Large numbers of Eritrean troops with tanks attacked but were destroyed,” a government statement said.
The fighting was described as intense by the Ethiopians; the action was not confirmed by Eritrea.
Ethiopia also claimed Wednesday that it had successfully repulsed four Eritrean assaults Tuesday on Ethiopian positions outside Zala Ambessa, an Ethiopian border town on the main highway between Addis Ababa and Asmara. More than 10,000 residents of Zala Ambessa fled fighting last week, and Eritrean troops captured the town June 2. But Ethiopian forces are reported on its southern outskirts.
Despite the reports of fighting, a Western expert said there seems to be no significant movement by either side. “It looks pretty much like a stalemate from here,” he said. “I think there may be some concern about not appearing to be the aggressor. Neither side wants to be clearly and unequivocally identified as the aggressor.”
The peace proposal put forth by the United States and Rwanda was negotiated by a diplomatic team over three weeks of talks with both sides last month. Ethiopia said last week that it accepts the proposal in principle, but Eritrea has said it still needs more work.
Susan E. Rice, assistant secretary of State for African affairs, has been leading work on the proposal and met with the leaders of both countries last Thursday. But just hours after her plane departed from Eritrea without final agreement, fighting flared into dueling air raids Friday and Saturday.
Now that both sides have been bloodied and are beginning to feel a post-combat economic pinch, a Western diplomat in Addis Ababa suggested that they may want to give the plan a second look “in the cold light of day.”
There have been no air raids since Saturday. One military expert said this may reflect a decision by the sides to tone down their conflict. But the pause in air raids also may be attributable to the dearth of operating aircraft and qualified pilots. A bombing raid by Eritrea on Friday killed 47 people and wounded scores more in Makele, capital of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray province.