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Eritrea/Ethiopia relations 'terribly polarized,' head of UN mission says

Eritrea/Ethiopia relations 'terribly polarized,' head of UN mission says

The situation between Ethiopia and Eritrea continues to be terribly polarized, with a lot of bitterness between the parties, the head of the United Nations mission in the area told a news conference at UN Headquarters in New York.

Speaking to the press following his briefing to the Security Council on the latest developments in the region, Legwaila Joseph Legwaila said the only forum where both parties had agreed to sit down together was the Military Coordination Commission. "Otherwise, they will not let the Mission try and get them together, especially at a political level," he said, referring to the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea, which is known as UNMEE.

The Mission's most important achievement so far has been the separation of the forces, which was completed on 18 April, he said. "The forces are now 25 kilometres apart, with the Ethiopians on the southern side of the southern border of the [Temporary Security] Zone and the Eritreans on the northern side of the northern border," Mr. Legwaila said.

The Mission chief said he was concerned that a delay in normalizing the relations between both countries might make it "longer and harder" for them once the UN had left. "There is so much they can do together, so much they can gain from each other," he said.

The bitterness between the two parties, he said, was a consequence of the war they had just fought. Prior to the outbreak of the latest war, they had been friends and had fought together. "I have tried to keep reminding them that they had been friends before and, therefore, could be friends again," Mr. Legwaila said. "I do not believe that the bitterness is something they cannot overcome."

On the Temporary Security Zone, the UNMEE chief said it had been a difficult process to negotiate the map by which the area was demarcated. Even today, the parties have not officially accepted the map, but they have lived with it and cooperated with the UN in the management of the Zone. The internally displaced persons have returned to their villages within the Zone, have plowed their fields, and are tending their cattle and reconstructing their homes with the help of UNMEE, the UN agencies and the international community, he said.

Looking ahead, Mr. Legwaila said the UN could not complete its mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia until the Border Commission had accomplished its work - estimated to be achieved by 2002 - and both parties had accepted the Commission's decision.