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Wednesday, 24 April, 2002, 18:23 GMT 19:23 UK
Eritrea begins demobilising
Eritrean soldiers say they just want to go home
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By Alex Last
BBC correspondent in Asmara
Eritrea says it has started to demobilise the first several thousand soldiers from its army, following the settlement of its border dispute with Ethiopia.

The pilot exercise is part of a larger programme which will see 200,000 soldiers released from the Eritrean army over the next two years.

During the recent conflict with Ethiopia, hundreds of thousands of Eritrean men and women were called up as the government ordered mass mobilisation.

The registration of the first 5,000 Eritrean soldiers to be demobilised after the conflict with Ethiopia began at four centres across the country on Wednesday.

Authorities in the capital, Asmara, say the demobilised will be helped to get home, and given money.

There will be advice on health and social issues, such as the threat of HIV - Aids.

UN peacekeeping force
About 70,000 lives had been lost by the time a UN force separated the two armies

And assistance will continue with schemes to offer further education and courses to learn new skills.

There are also plans to offer post-traumatic stress counselling to help soldiers reintegrate after experiencing two and a half years of bitter trench warfare.

Eritrea has demobilised before, following the end of the war of independence in 1991, though not on such a scale.

Desire to go home

After the pilot project comes the first phase when an estimated 80,000 Eritrean men and women are expected to be demobilised, though no exact date has been given.

The World Bank and international donors have pledged money which should cover the first phase, though funding is far short of the $200m asked for by the Eritrean government for the whole programme.

Many soldiers have said privately that they do not care about the demobilisation money.

They say they just want to go home.

But observers say the long term stability of Eritrea, whose population is only 3.5 million, depends on a successful reintegration of the demobilised troops.

The exercise will require considerable time and money to provide the former soldiers with genuine prospects for the future.

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