6 March 2006

East Africa: UN Commander of Ethiopia-Eritrea Force Voices Hope for Peace Process Breakthrough

With the situation between the formerly warring countries of Ethiopia and Eritrea still deadlocked, the top United Nations force commander in the region has voiced hope for a breakthrough in the peace process.

Addressing a meeting of the Military Coordination Commission in Nairobi, Kenya, on Saturday, Major General Rajender Singh, who heads the peacekeeping troops serving with the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), said the international community is working to forge a lasting solution to settle the conflict.

After Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace accord ending their 1998-2000 border war, UNMEE was deployed to monitor a Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) separating the two Horn of Africa countries. Eritrea has been critical of the UN for not forcing Ethiopia to accept the border delineated in 2002, awarding Badme - the town that triggered the conflict - to Eritrea.

Last month, the Security Council urged the two parties to sit down with the commission charged with setting a permanent border and to abide by its decisions.

General Singh recalled the Council's statement at Saturday's meeting, which brought together military leaders from both sides, and cited other initiatives aimed at fostering a breakthrough. "We remain hopeful that with the support of the international community, these initiatives will indeed be the watershed in the peace process," he said.

On the overall situation in the Mission Area, Major General Rajender Singh noted that there had not been any significant changes in recent months, but voiced concern about the continued presence of groups of Eritrean armed personnel in certain areas within the TSZ.

He also spoke about constraints faced by UNMEE as a result of Eritrea's restrictions, including helicopter flight ban, which continues to impede the rapid evacuation of sick or injured peacekeepers while reducing the mission's monitoring capability. Last week, an UNMEE peacekeeper, Lance Corporal Kamble Ramesh Annappa, died of cardiac arrest after Eritrea refused the mission's request for a medevac.

General Singh also voiced concern about the number of mine incidents registered in the last two months - six in all on both sides of the border. "These have not only resulted in fatal and serious casualties to civilians, but have also emerged as a major threat to the peacekeepers on both sides of the southern boundary of the TSZ," he pointed out, urging both parties to address the menace.

Also speaking at the meeting, Brigadier General Otisitswe Tiroyamodimo of the African Union (AU) appealed to Eritrea to remove the flight restrictions against UNMEE.

Ethiopia's representative, Major General Yohannes Gebremeskel, expressed his Government's commitment to the cause of peace and promised full cooperation with UNMEE. "UNMEE is an instrument of peace and stability between Ethiopia and Eritrea," he said, urging the international community to take the necessary steps to restore the mission to its full operating capacity.

Eritrea's delegate, Colonel Zecarias Ogbagaber, said his country was committed to the peace agreement but stressed that it was "up to Ethiopia to abide by the decision of the Boundary Commission." He said the flight ban and other restrictions were only expressions of Eritrea's frustrations. "UNMEE is here to facilitate demarcation; not to manage an indefinite stalemate," he said. "Eritrea has the right to resort to whatever measure it deems necessary to assert its territorial rights."

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