The Security Council today discussed Eritrea’s ban on United Nations helicopter flights over its sector of the frontier with Ethiopia – a measure which has limited the ability of the UN peacekeeping mission there to conduct surveillance, emergency evacuations and de-mining.
“Now the Council is very much aware of the whole situation and is seized of it and we hope that some action will be taken so that this decision is rescinded and we bring the tension down and move towards a better situation on the ground,” Under-Secretary-General Jean-Marie Guéhenno of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations told reporters after briefing the 15-member body behind closed doors.
He said new restrictions have also caused “difficulties in patrolling” on the Eritrean side the Temporary Security Zone,” where the two countries fought a two year border war. The UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) has been monitoring that Zone for the past five years.
The ban – which Eritrea has not explained – prompted UNMEE to vacate 18 of it 40 monitoring posts.
Because of the terrain along the 1,100-kilometre-long border line, the UN relies heavily on helicopters for its work. With about 55 per cent of that line closed off to helicopters, “we lose visibility,” Mr. Guéhenno said.
Another concern is the security of the troops. “For me, frankly, as head of peacekeeping it’s a very important issue and I know that the troop contributors feel strongly about it,” he said.
He cited Eritrea’s denial of a request earlier this week to fly out by helicopter three Kenyan peacekeepers injured in a road accident, who had to be transported over land all the way to Asmara, the Eritrean capital. “I think they’re okay but they could have been not okay… so that’s a serious issue for our people,” he said.
Mr. Guéhenno also pointed out that the ban had halted de-mining in the Temporary Security Zone – “something that has been of great benefit to the Eritrean people.
“Because of the obvious risks that de-mining entails, you don’t do de-mining if you’re not sure you can bring the people quickly to hospital with a helicopter, so we have had to stop all de-mining operations, which I think hurts the mission but hurts first and foremost the people of Eritrea,” he added.
Asked repeatedly if there had been a threat to shoot down helicopters, he said: “When a sovereign government makes clear that helicopters are not allowed to fly and when you know that that government has the means to enforce that instruction, testing it is a very, you know…”
Here he broke off to read what the Eritrean letter said: ‘Therefore to avoid any unwanted consequences I urge to strictly comply by this decision and adjust your activities accordingly.’
“Now you can characterize this sentence as you wish,” Mr. Guéhenno said.