Monday, June 8, 1998 Published at 12:27 GMT 13:27 UK
From comrades to adversaries
Ethiopia says Eritrean troops crossed over the border
Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, after years of Eritreans and Ethiopians fighting as brothers-in-arms to overthrow Addis Ababa's dictatorship.
But despite Eritrea's peaceful accession to independence in 1993, the boundary between the two countries was never properly defined.
This new conflict threatens the current fashionable assertion, frequently advanced by the US administration, that a new and visionary group of ex-guerrilla leaders is transforming Africa.
Ethiopia's President Meles Zenawi and Eritrea's Isayas Afewerki, brothers-in-arms during their long rebellion, are members of this group along with the leaders of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire.
The US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Chester Crocker, also points to a historic rivalry between the Tigrayan Ethiopians, who are now the dominant ethnic group in Ethiopia, and the Eritreans.
The two groups are traditionally very close, and the Ethiopian and Eritrean leaders fought together to overthrow the military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.
But Mr Crocker says that there is also rivalry between the two peoples, which may underlie the personal antagonism between Meles Zenawi and Isayas Afewerki.
Ethiopia's population of 60 million outnumbers Eritrea's by 15 to one. But Eritreans have been hardened by a 30 year war of liberation and have a formidable fighting record.
Both countries retain large standing armies an the area is awash with tanks, artillery and aircraft provided by the former Soviet block.
Both Ethiopia and Eritrea have received considerable backing from Washington as part of its policy to pressure the Islamic government in Sudan.
Eritrea officially supports Sudanese rebels. During its short history as an independent state, Eritrea has come close to war with Yemen over islands in the Red Sea and has squared up to tiny Djibouti over another dispute.
Weeks of mediation by the United States and other countries have, so far, failed to end this dispute.