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Horn of Africa: War Clouds Gathering

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Nov 6, 2005 (051106)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

The commander of the UN force on the disputed border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Maj-Gen. Rajender Singh, last week described the situation as "tense and potentially volatile," the strongest language used by UN Mission officials in the five years the force has been in place. When pressed by a journalist to be more explicit, General Singh stressed that urgent action was needed by the Security Council to avoid the threat of a return to war.

Both governments have used the conflict in attempts to distract attention from internal issues of democracy and human rights. After agreeing to international arbitration, Ethiopia subsequently refused to implement the ruling by an international Boundary Commission in 2002. The current build-up of tension has been sparked by an Eritrean decision to bar UN helicopters from sectors of the border zone. At the same time, adding to the generally tense atmosphere, in an unrelated dispute over the outcome of the May 2005 elections, more than 40 people have been killed by Ethiopian security forces following opposition demonstrations in the capital.

Critics say that major powers have been hesitant to put sufficient pressure on the Ethiopian government, on either internal issues or the border conflict, because of the country's size and strategic importance.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains a news release from the United Nations following a Security Council decision to send a high-level envoy to the region, and excerpts from the press conference by the UN Force Commander Singh and the Secretary-General's Special Representative, Ambassador Legwaila Joseph Legwaila.

For detailed updates from UN and other sources, see For additional background and analysis on the border conflict, see and For earlier AfricaFocus Bulletins and additional background on Ethiopia, see


Many thanks to those subscribers who have recently sent in a voluntary subscription payment to support AfricaFocus Bulletin. If you haven't yet sent in such a payment and are able to do so, please help AfricaFocus reach more people with reliable information on Africa. Send in a check or pay on-line by credit card. See for details.

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UN envoy to visit Ethiopia and Eritrea as tensions mount

United Nations News Service (

03 Nov 2005

Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the United Nations Security Council today strongly urged Eritrea and Ethiopia to refrain any threat or use of force as a UN envoy prepared to visit the region, where tensions are rising between the two formerly warring neighbours.

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 briefed the 15-member 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."

Holding the Council's monthly rotating presidency for November, Ambassador Andrey Denisov of Russia told journalists that the 15-member body was "deeply concerned" about reports received from UNMEE that Ethiopia and Eritrea are moving military personnel on both sides of the TSZ.

Council members were also 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."

The Council authorized the Chairman of its Working Group on Peacekeeping Operations, Ambassador 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 Maj-Gen. 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 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 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 $200 million into maintaining a mission which is not allowed to do its work?" he said.

Meanwhile, UNMEE said, its peacekeepers continued to provide medical assistance to the local population, along with supplies of bulk water to civilian communities in the TSZ and the Adjacent Areas. Some 253,900 litres of water were supplied to the civilian communities in the past week.

But on Tuesday, for the third time since the ban on UNMEE helicopter flights came into effect on 5 October, a request for clearance from the Eritrean Authorities for aerial medical evacuation of a peacekeeper had met with no response, the mission said.

United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea

Media Briefing Transcript - 3 November 2005

[Excerpts only. For full transcript and other background information see the UNMEE website (]


General Overview

The military situation in the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) and the Adjacent Areas is tense and potentially volatile. The ban imposed by the Eritrean Government on UNMEE helicopters continues to be in place. This week a large number of troop movements have been noticed on both the Ethiopian and Eritrean sides of the border. A considerable number of restrictions have been placed on the movement of UNMEE personnel inside the Temporary Security Zone, in Sectors Center and West. Movement by the UNMEE Force in certain areas and patrolling at night has also been curtailed. ...

Questions & Answers

Question [From Addis Ababa]: When you say the situation in the Temporary Security Zone and the Adjacent Areas is tense and potentially volatile, can you just expand on that and tell us what you mean? Does that mean there is a risk of war? Certainly in the time I have been here in Ethiopia, this is language that UNMEE has never used. Is that the case or has there been a situation in the past that has been "tense and potentially volatile?"

Force Commander [Major-General Rajender Singh]: ... UNMEE has been here for the last 5 years and we have successfully been able not only to separate the two armed forces, but also to create a Temporary Security Zone, (TSZ) monitor the TSZ effectively and ensure that a peaceful environment has prevailed, until now.

Things have changed slightly since then. What has actually happened is that our capability to monitor the TSZ has been restricted. Our capability to see, observe verify and monitor has in fact gone down by 60 per cent. I will not go into the details as to why this has happened. I have already explained that during my earlier meetings with the press. We have seen some additional movement of troops on the Ethiopian side, some preparation of defenses, movement of troops, movement of other army formations, details of which in many cases have been shared by the Ethiopian authorities with us. This is coupled with the fact that the restrictions on the freedom of movement of our peacekeepers on the ground (are) also taking place inside the TSZ. On the Eritrean side, we have seen some cases in which some armed troops or some armed personnel who called themselves militia, are also deployed in some of the areas. We have also seen some large concentrations of troops in the "depth areas" in Eritrea. All these factors are actually creating the kind of environment in which the two sides who used to bank totally on our information system, of which they were quite confident that UNMEE would be able to monitor, and report if there is anything (untoward,) that confidence level has gone down on both sides, and with this kind of environment, it is natural that there are suspicions on both sides. When you have suspicions, there is tension and that's why we are calling the situation "tense" and potentially volatile, (because we believe) if this tension is not addressed it could become volatile tomorrow.

Question [From Addis Ababa]: What do you mean by volatile - does that mean war, does that mean shooting at each other, does that mean shouts across the TSZ - What does volatile mean?

Force Commander: All of what you have described.

Question [From Addis Ababa]: So you are saying that the potentially volatile situation could lead to a renewed outbreak of war?

Force Commander: At its worst yes, but I am also not saying that things which are happening today will lead tomorrow to war. No, I am (using the term) potentially volatile, that is, if you do not take measures and if the international community doesn't address it, maybe the situation may in fact deteriorate to that level in which the worst can happen; and the worst is war, of course.

Question [From Asmara]: In the briefing it says that "the situation is tense and volatile". Is it the first time ever that UNMEE (has) used that expression instead the usual one which is "stable". Is it the first time since UNMEE was created (that this expression has been used)?

Spokeswoman: We have used the term 'tense' before because the situation has been 'tense' before. We have never used the (expression) "potentially volatile." No, this is the first time we are using it and, I think, the FC has very adequately explained why.

Question [From Asmara]: When things are becoming "tense and potentially volatile," does it mean that the situation is becoming out of UNMEE's control?

Force Commander: As far as the military situation is concerned, the onus of responsibility of having a military situation in control lies with the two parties. UNMEE is here to assist the two parties in observing, in verifying and monitoring that the situation remains well under control. Up until this moment, with the cooperation of the two sides, we have had the situation well under control and that's why we used to call it "stable and peaceful." Of late, there have been some developments which are a cause of concern, including the ban on UNMEE flights, the troop movements on the Ethiopian side, developments inside the Temporary Security Zone, and some movements on the Eritrean side. All these developments do affect the security situation and I have already mentioned the kind of an impact that this kind of development will have. ...

Let me tell you that despite the ban on the helicopters and despite the degradation of our monitoring capabilities, my troops are working day and night. Night whenever permitted. We have been increasing our patrolling. We are fully committed on both sides to ensuring (that) we have a fairly peaceful environment in the TSZ and Adjacent Areas. Let me also mention that I have been receiving total transparency and a great amount of assistance from both Commissioners. (for coordination with the peacekeeping mission) I hope this cooperation will continue, however that does not really mean that movements are not taking place on both sides which are, in fact, a source of concern.

Question [From Addis Ababa]: I would not dare to say that the situation is under control because when there was war between Ethiopia and Eritrea I have visited the frontline. I have been there. UNMEE Forces are still vacating from Aromo, Monoxito, Ambasa Geleba, Bada and also from Bure side and also in Sector West from many strategic places. How do we dare to say the situation is under control? At any time any thing can happen because these the troops of these two parties are confronting each other and the places ...

Force Commander: I agree with you totally. It pains my heart when I withdraw troops and therefore I would once again, through the medium of this press conference, appeal to Eritrea to withdraw the ban on helicopters, to enable us to divert back to these places that you have mentioned. It is a great honor for a soldier to be asked to come and help these two countries, especially (the peace process between) two great nations like Eritrea and Ethiopia. UNMEE forces here are functioning with the same attitude, but I would like to mention that these withdrawals from these places have taken place because of urgent operational restraints which have been put on us because of the helicopter ban. I had given the reasons behind this (decision) in the last meeting that I had with the press. We would be more than happy to ensure that we revert back to those remote places, but for this (to happen) operational conditions including the lifting of the ban is a must. Regarding your other point that both sides need to do something: the international community needs to do something. Ambassador Legwaila has time and again mentioned this and we have got nothing further to add to that.

Spokeswoman: I would just like to draw your attention to the Secretary-General's statement of yesterday. In that, the Secretary-General has asked urged the Security Council and individual member states to take decisive steps to diffuse the escalating tension. So I think there is an appeal for something to be done.

Question (Asmara): Why do you think there hasn't been war already and what's stopping the two countries from going to war now? Do you think they have lost the element of surprise?

Force Commander: No, I have great faith in the leaders of Africa. I think wise counsel will prevail and that both countries, as the Secretary-General has requested, will exercise restraint. A soldier is the last man who thinks of war. I think that a war should not break out. Especially these two countries realize what kind of implications war may bring: destruction to men and material, and also to the development of the two countries.

[Press Conference was joined by SRSG Legwaila Joseph Legwaila]


Question (Asmara): SRSG would it be possible to get some kind of idea or the flavour of the discussions in New York, in particular some kind of explanation on the dilemma perhaps, or the discussions going on about the position to take vis-…-vis Ethiopia and Eritrea. Some diplomats are saying that on the one hand one wants to get the helicopters up and flying again and on the other hand, people do not want to be seen to be rewarding Eritrea for this behaviour by putting pressure on Ethiopia to demarcate the border?

SRSG: I do not think there is a dilemma in the Security Council. The Security Council has been warned about the stalemate for a very long time. They were warned by me, warned by the Secretary General, warned by Under-Secretary-General Mr. Jean Marie Gu‚henno. So I do not know where the dilemma arises because I do not think there is any confusion as to the nature of the stalemate and why (there is) a stalemate. There is no confusion about the fact that one of the parties has banned our helicopter flights. I do not know why anybody would be confused by the fact that right now we are not even allowed to evacuate people who have been invited by Eritrea and Ethiopia to come here to serve the cause of peace. I have asked the Government if they could do it themselves, if they do not allow us to do it. They have neither agreed to do it themselves nor allowed us to do it with our helicopters. These two issues are very clear, there should be no confusion and I can assure you there is no confusion in the Security Council that there is a stalemate which needs to be dealt with if we are not about to see the reignition of the conflict which ended in 2000. If the helicopters are not allowed to fly, one of these days there will be a dead soldier, a dead soldier because we cannot evacuate him or her. ...

What is at stake is that three years have passed since the decision of the Boundary Commission was rendered and it has not been implemented. Now we are faced with one of the parties banning our helicopter flights, and as I have repeatedly said, the stalemate has absolutely nothing to do with UNMEE. We are not responsible for implementing the decision of the Boundary Commission. That responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of Eritrea and Ethiopia and the Boundary Commission - not UNMEE. So why is UNMEE being punished, why are these soldiers who have come here to sacrifice their lives for the cause of peace being subjected to the kind of vagaries of nature that they are being subjected to?

So let no one be mistaken as to what the stakes are and as the Secretary-General pointed out, if the peacekeeping mission is not allowed to do the job for which they have been invited here to do, obviously the Security Council will have to take a very hard decision. Is it useful to keep the Mission in place when consent for it to do its job without interference is being withdrawn and when the decision of the Boundary Commission is not being implemented? This is the question which the Security Council, one if these days, must ask itself.

Question (Asmara): Does that mean that now you expect the UN Security Council to pass a meaningful resolution or a stronger resolution than in previous occasions and if not what do you expect?

SRSG: The Security Council has been written a letter by the Secretary-General- as those of you who have read it will know- and the Security Council, owes the Secretary-General a response. The Secretary-General called for urgent action on the crisis we face. In other words, the Security Council has its work cut out. The Security Council, I must repeat, is not confused as to what needs to be done, absolutely not. The stalemate, as I have told them a long time ago, it is not a new thing. The banning of helicopter flights is a new thing. Very soon it will be one month since the helicopter flights were banned and therefore the Security Council has been asked by the Executive Officer of the United Nations, the Secretary-General, to take action in the discharge of their responsibilities as the people who are responsible, according to the Charter, for the maintenance of international peace and security. Therefore that challenge - that clarion call - is still there for them to take action. ...

Question (Asmara): Ambassador Legwaila, if peacekeepers die because they have not been evacuated by helicopters would you recommend that the Mission leave if this happens?

SRSG: As I have said, the Secretary General says if the peacekeepers are not allowed to do their job, the United Nations will have to take very hard decisions and those hard decisions would have to make a determination as to whether consent is being withdrawn. This is a Mission under Chapter 6. The only way we can do our work is to have the consent of both parties, not one, the consent of both parties. If that consent is being withdrawn, not necessarily by both parties, but even by one party, (then the Council will need to examine) whether we are still able to carry out our mandate. If we are not, then the Security Council must decide (what happens next.) Is it useful to keep pouring $200 million to maintaining a mission which is not allowed to do its work? I think simple logic would tell you that that decision would have to be taken by the Security Council.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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