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UN Security Council carefully weighs next steps for mission in Ethiopia, Eritrea

UN Security Council carefully weighs next steps for mission in Ethiopia, Eritrea

While concerned about border tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea as well as the latter’s ban on United Nations overflights, the world body is avoiding making hasty decisions on the future of its peacekeeping operation in the Horn of Africa countries, a senior UN official said today.

After a closed Security Council meeting on the UN Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), Under-Secretary-General Jean-Marie Guéhenno told a news conference: “What was clear in the Council is that there is a sense of urgency, of crisis; that this is not business as usual because obviously the status quo is unsustainable.

“At the same time there is also a recognition that one should not rush to precipitous decisions, that everything has to be done to avoid increasing the risk on the front line between Ethiopia and Eritrea and so time has to be given for diplomacy,” he added.

Eritrea has increased its criticisms of the UN for not forcing Ethiopia to accept the border delineated in 2002, awarding Badme, the town that triggered the fierce 1998-2000 conflict, to Eritrea.

In his latest report to the Council, Mr. Annan said UNMEE could buy time “for diplomatic initiatives to unblock the current dangerous stalemate,” or opt for relocation, moving most of those UN staff now in Asmara, Eritrea, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Other options offered included transforming the mission into an observer or a political liaison mission, or creating a preventive force deployed south of the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) currently held by Ethiopia. Or, Mr. Annan added, “UNMEE could be withdrawn entirely.”

Mr. Guéhenno said he was in constant touch with the troop contributing countries and they were aware that a decision to withdraw could have “momentous consequences,” but at some point tough decisions would have to be made if developments did not go the way they should.

He welcomed the announcement made by the United States Ambassador that his Government would soon send a high-powered mission to the two countries.

Earlier today, Ambassador John Bolton told journalists at UN headquarters that US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, would lead the delegation in an effort to end the dispute between the two countries on border demarcation.

This involvement by a key Council member in the crisis would give diplomacy a chance, Mr Guéhenno said, and he hoped that in the weeks ahead the window that had been opened would not be shut and that “every effort be made to take advantage of that diplomatic engagement to move the process forward.”

The Council passed resolution 1640 in November giving the two countries until 23 December to reduce troop levels under threat of sanctions. It also warned Eritrea that it would also face sanctions if it did not lift its restrictions on UNMEE and it urged Ethiopia to accept the new boundary. Ethiopia agreed to withdraw some soldiers from the border, but Eritrea demanded that the UN withdraw peacekeepers of certain nationalities from its territory.