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Friday, 14 December, 2001, 17:48 GMT
All quiet on Eritrea's frontline
Eritrean police at Zegfet
Six shots were fired at Zegfet fort last week
By the BBC's Alex Last

An elderly priest, Keshi Gebrekidan, holding his bible as he sat and rested in the shade of an unfinished building in the deserted Eritrean border town of New Serha, largely destroyed during the war with Ethiopia.

"We are very close to peace, to go to war again would be a disaster," he said. "We have lost so many lives, so much money, what have we gained? Nothing."

Elderly priest, Keshi Gebrekidan
Gebrekidan does not want more war
Mr Gebrekidan was minding his cattle, nibbling on the grass, now brown three months after the end of the rains.

He was making sure they did not stray across the southern boundary of the Temporary Security Zone to the disputed town of Zalambessa.

Ironically, the straying livestock is one issue which highlights the relatively good relations on the ground despite the two governments' accusations of imminent conflict.

Promising sign

Major Mukul Dobhal, the commander of the Indian company for the United Nations peace force, UNMEE, in this sector said that a few days ago, the Eritrean administrator of the surrounding area had given him nine cattle to repatriate to Ethiopia after they had strayed into the TSZ.

He said that on three or four occasions recently, the Ethiopian army had similarly returned wandering Eritrean livestock, with the UN acting as the conduit.

"Livestock are so important, it is their livelihood," said the Major.

The co-operation, albeit on a small scale, is a good sign.

The Major looked relaxed as he surveyed the stunning canyons, plateaux and sharp mountains through which the southern boundary of the TSZ runs.

He said there was no unusual activity.

No build-up

Indeed, past the UN checkpoint, Ethiopian soldiers in Zalambessa could be seen playing football.

On the Eritrean side of the boundary, a policeman stood about the ruins of neighbouring Serha as his colleague slept. "There is nothing happening in this sector," he said.

Check-point
The permanent border still has to be decided

The UN Major said there were 21 policemen in New Serha and no local militia.

There has been no increase in numbers of Eritrean police and militia, said Zambian UN military observer Lieutenant Colonel RK Mwenda, team leader of Military Observers in nearby Senafe.

The Eritrean policeman we spoke to said they had been there for 6 months.

Shots fired

Ethiopia has accused Eritrea of having 30,000 soldiers inside the security zone - an accusation rejected by the UN peace-keeping mission.

Similarly, Eritrea last week accused Ethiopia of sending 250 troops inside the security zone and firing on an Eritrean police post at Zegfet, to the east of New Serha.

Eritrean policeman
Thousands were killed in fighting near New Serha

The police post lies at the top of a hill amidst the ruins of an old Italian fort.

Three Eritrean policemen looked out from the old battlements across the stark mountain ranges of the disputed Irob region, where thousands of soldiers died in last year's fighting.

The Ethiopian army occupies the range now.

One of the policeman, Haile Kidane, said last week that Ethiopian soldiers had started to walk up the spur of the small hill opposite the fort.

He said the police kept shouting "Stop" when they were 200m away.

He said the Ethiopian soldiers then fired six shots at the fort.

Powder keg

A UN standing patrol arrived and the Ethiopians went back down the hill.

He said he could not tell how many Ethiopians were there, but he thought more were coming up the hill.

"They want to cause trouble, why else would they come up the hill," asked the policeman.

This story highlights the key point.

In the current climate, any incident can be blown out of proportion.

It seems that in the run-up to the official delimitation of the disputed border, the two governments' mistrust of each other is only likely to increase.

See also:

02 Nov 01 | Africa
Eritrea critic denies conspiracy
08 Oct 01 | Africa
Eritrea denies preparing for war
03 Oct 01 | Africa
Eritrean dissident set for return
02 Oct 01 | Africa
Eritrea plays down diplomatic row
21 Sep 01 | Africa
Concern over Eritrea detainees
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