Ethiopia and Eritrea Agree to Cease-Fire


Enemy neighbors Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a U.S.-backed cease-fire agreement Sunday designed to halt their crushingly expensive two-year war, a deadly conflict considered so senseless that it has been likened to two bald men fighting over a comb.

President Clinton hailed the accord calling for an immediate suspension of hostilities, signed in Algiers, as “a breakthrough which can and should end the tragic conflict in the Horn of Africa.”

“It can, and should, permit these two countries to realize their potential in peace, instead of squandering it in war,” said Clinton, who dispatched former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake to Algeria’s capital to help clinch the deal.


To end a conflict in which tens of thousands of soldiers have died and two of the world’s poorest countries are believed to have poured more than $1 billion into weaponry, Ethiopia and Eritrea agreed to allow a force of international peacekeepers to temporarily patrol a buffer zone reaching 15 miles into Eritrean territory.

After the deployment of the foreign soldiers, under the aegis of the Organization of African Unity, Ethiopia would withdraw from large swaths of land it has captured inside Eritrea since it opened a blitzkrieg offensive May 12.

It would be left to future negotiations to demarcate the countries’ disputed 620-mile border, which was at the root of the fighting. That proviso left some dubious that the conflict is definitively over.

“This is the beginning and not the end of the process,” Eritrean Foreign Minister Haile Weldensae said in Algiers. “The road ahead toward a durable peace is fraught with dangers and complications. But we are hopeful.”

Over the past 25 months, rhetoric from the belligerents spoke of the need to defend national honor and sovereignty. But Haile on Sunday chose language akin to the Clinton administration’s. He called the conflict between neighbors who were part of one country until 1993, but who went to war over small sections of the frontier largely devoid of people or resources, “useless.”

Another complication may be how quickly a peacekeeping force can be cobbled together for duty in the Horn. On Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, himself from the West African nation of Ghana, sent a team of experts to Africa to discuss plans. According to diplomats quoted in news dispatches from Algiers, at least 2,000 to 4,000 soldiers will be needed. The recent humiliation of U.N. troops in Sierra Leone, where some were taken hostage or killed by anti-government rebels, will not make recruitment any easier.


The agreement on cessation of hostilities was reached after more than two weeks of negotiations in Algiers brokered by the 53-nation Organization of African Unity, or OAU, and supported by the United States and the European Union. International interest was great because the conflict, which broke out when Eritrea occupied some contested borderlands on May 6, 1998, has threatened to destabilize other countries in the region.

Likewise, the war, the most lethal underway in Africa, has raged at a time of humanitarian emergency in the Horn--in fact, it has contributed to the crisis. Prolonged drought in the region has put an estimated 16 million Africans, 10 million of whom live in Ethiopia, at risk of starvation. The fighting has driven at least 1 million Eritreans from their homes at a time when farmers should be busy in their fields planting, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said Sunday.

“This is an important moment that ends two years of conflict,” envoy Lake said after attending the signing ceremony in Algiers. “It is a moment when we think of the thousands of dead, wounded and those displaced beyond their borders.”

During the talks, Eritrea’s Haile and his Ethiopian counterpart never met face to face but instead negotiated through intermediaries who shuttled between them. On Sunday, the two ministers finally came together, shook hands and pledged to work for a lasting settlement.

“We will remain faithful and loyal for the full implementation of this agreement on the cessation of hostilities signed between us and Eritrea,” Seyoum Mesfin of Ethiopia said.

If it sticks, the Algiers accord will provide a rare and sorely needed triumph for the OAU. Founded in 1963, the group--which is based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital--did provide a forum for continental mobilization against the old apartheid regime of South Africa. But it has proved chronically inept at preventing disputes and wars between its members.


Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who holds the organization’s revolving chairmanship, called the Algiers agreement “a new dawn for peace in Africa.”

“It is also an important event because it marks a remarkable international cooperation and solidarity,” added Bouteflika, who called on the United States and Western Europe to help resolve other African conflicts.

From the White House, Clinton said he had asked Lake to work with the OAU on the next set of negotiations between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

“I urge [those countries] to use the next round of talks to produce a final, comprehensive, lasting agreement, so they can get on with the work of pursuing democracy and development for their people,” the president said.

“There is no longer any killing,” Lake told the Reuters news agency in Algiers. “Now we start work immediately on the remaining issues, including the most important one, which is the demarcation of the border. There will be more hard work to get the peace agreement implemented.”

On May 31, Ethiopia unilaterally declared that the war was over as far as it was concerned, but sporadic combat continued.



Key Events in the Conflict

Between Ethiopia and Eritrea

Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace agreement Sunday aimed at ending a devastating two-year border war. The former Horn of Africa allies have links that stretch back years:

* 1952--Eritrea, a former Italian colony and a U.N.-mandated territory since World War II, is federated with Ethiopia under Emperor Haile Selassie.

* 1962--Eritrea is made a province of Ethiopia, fueling Eritrea’s independence struggle.

* 1975--Following the ouster of Haile Selassie, Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam emerges as the leader of a Marxist regime. In succeeding years, thousands of suspected opponents are killed in the “Red Terror” campaign.

* 1984-85--Famine in Ethiopia claims about 1 million lives. Throughout the 1980s, rebel groups fight for independence in Eritrea and the northern Ethiopian province of Tigre.

* May 1993--Eritrea gains independence after a referendum and goes on to enjoy good relations with Ethiopia.

* November 1997--Eritrea introduces its own currency; its attempts to regulate cross-border trade lead to a disagreement over where the border lies.


* May 6, 1998--A border war starts.

* May 12, 1998--Eritrea occupies Ethiopian-administered Badme.

* June 4, 1998--Ethiopia says it accepts a peace plan drawn up by the U.S. and Rwanda that requires Eritrea to withdraw to pre-May 6 positions.

* June 5, 1998--Eritrea launches an air raid on the northern Ethiopian town of Mekele, killing more than 40 civilians. Ethiopia bombs the Eritrean capital, Asmara, on consecutive days.

* June 1998--Fighting subsides. The Organization of African Unity, the U.S. and others try to negotiate a peace deal.

* November 1998--Ethiopia accepts the OAU peace plan; Eritrea objects to certain elements of it.

* Feb. 6, 1999--Fighting erupts at Badme and spreads to all three fronts.

* Feb. 26, 1999--Ethiopia recaptures Badme after days of World War I-style trench warfare; thousands of lives are lost.

* February 1999--Eritrea accepts the OAU peace plan, but Ethiopia dismisses this as a “trick.”


* June 1999--Fighting subsides. Ethiopia says it wants clarifications to the OAU plan, which it maintains has been altered.

* April 2000--Ethiopia rejects an offer by Eritrea to use the Red Sea port of Assab to bring in relief supplies for drought-hit areas of Ethiopia.

* May 5, 2000--Indirect peace talks collapse.

* May 12, 2000--Ethiopia launches major new offensive.

* May 17, 2000--U.N. Security Council votes for an arms embargo against both sides in punishment for renewing the war.

* May 25, 2000--Eritrea announces that it will pull back from the territories it seized at the outbreak of the war after Ethiopia’s advance displaces hundreds of thousands of civilians.

* May 29, 2000--Ethiopian warplanes bomb Asmara airport.

* May 30, 2000--Indirect talks begin in Algiers.

* May 31, 2000--Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declares that the border war has ended, but fighting continues for 10 days with Ethiopian forces still well inside Eritrea.

* June 18, 2000--A peace agreement brokered by the OAU is signed in Algiers.

Source: Reuters