Senior UN officials to assess border stand-off

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan will send two senior UN officials to Eritrea and Ethiopia to assess the volatile border stand-off following a decision by the Eritrean government to expel personnel from the UN peacekeeping mission there.

A spokesperson for the office of the Secretary General in New York said on Thursday that Annan had asked the head of the UN peacekeeping department, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, and the UN military advisor, General Randir Kumar Mehta, to leave as soon as practicable for the Horn of Africa.

The UN has already informed Eritrean authorities that it would not comply with their demand that staff of the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) from the United States, Canada, Europe and Russia leave Eritrea within 10 days.

According to UNMEE, about 180 people would be affected by Eritrea’s demand, including 91 military observers, about 10 UN volunteers and 70 international civilian staff.

UNMEE force commander Major-General Rajender Singh said that personnel from 18 out of the 44 countries who have sent peacekeepers to the region have been asked to leave.

Both the Secretary General and the Security Council have demanded that Eritrea rescind its request, saying it is inconsistent with the fundamental principle of the universality of the peacekeeping operation, which should represent the whole of the international community.

Guéhenno and Mehta will review and assess the situation on the ground and determine what steps could be taken to improve it, the UN spokesperson said.

The military situation in the Temporary Security Zone and adjacent areas is potentially volatile, UNMEE said. Tension has mounted in recent weeks and troop movements have been noticed on both sides of the border.

Both the Security Council and the Secretary General have demanded that Eritrea reverse its ban on air flights and lift all restrictions imposed on UNMEE’s operations as called for by the Council’s 23 November resolution on the matter.

That resolution threatened actions, possibly including sanctions, against Eritrea if it did not immediately rescind its flight ban and against both countries if they did not reverse their military build-up in the border zone.

Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year guerrilla war, but the boundary between the two countries was never formally demarcated.

A border conflict broke out in 1998 and claimed tens of thousands of lives. In December 2000, a peace agreement was reached that provided for an independent commission to rule on the boundary dispute while UN peacekeeping troops patrolled a 25km buffer zone.

Ethiopia, however, refused to accept the April 2002 international ruling in its entirety, and the two nations remain entrenched in a tense border stand-off.

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