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Friday, 15 February, 2002, 12:59 GMT
Horn border ruling delayed
Leaders at prayer in Asmara (pic: Jorge Aramburu/UNMEE)
The visits have injected a new sense of optimism
The decision by an international commission demarcating the disputed border between Ethiopia and Eritrea has been delayed until the end of March.


We hope that this is a symbol that the wounds are healing between the two countries

Abune Paulos
Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church

The announcement by the Border Commission in The Hague came as religious leaders from the two countries were welcomed in each other's capitals on the first such visits since a 2000 peace agreement.

The historic visits were aimed at promoting peace ahead of the border decision, which a UN spokesperson said had been delayed by a month for "technical reasons".

About 100,000 people died in the brutal cross-border conflict, which erupted in 1998, and tensions are still high amid continuing disputes over territorial claims.

A visit by a UN Security Council delegation will still go ahead later this month.

Songs of welcome

The religious leaders had already held six peace meetings in Europe, the United States and Kenya before visiting their respective capitals.

Correspondents say the latest visits have injected a sense of optimism into the peace process, providing the first real evidence of official cooperation.

Orthodox choir in Addis Ababa
The visits have been viewed as a breakthrough

On Thursday, more than 100 Ethiopian archbishops, priests, nuns and members of the Islamic Supreme Council turned out to welcome the Eritrean delegation.

An Orthodox choir dressed in traditional white cotton vestments sang songs of welcome as the delegation arrived at Addis Ababa's international airport.

The 10-member Eritrean party included the heads of the four main religious institutions in Eritrea - the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Islamic Council and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea.

"We hope that this is a symbol that the wounds are healing between the two countries," said the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Paulos.

"This is good start and a promising start. We are asking the people and the leadership to move towards peace because there is nothing more useful in this world, than peace", he said.

The delegation held meetings with the Eritrean Foreign Minister, Ali Said Abdalla, who praised their efforts to build peace between the two countries.

The Eritrean leaders were accompanied by their Ethiopian counterparts, who had themselves received a warm welcome in the Eritrean capital Asmara on Wednesday.

Church bells from the city's Catholic Cathedral rang out across the capital, and prayers of peace were also said at the central mosque to mark the talks.

Border

The international boundary commission was formed under procedures laid down as part of the peace agreement, which also involved the deployment of 4,000 UN troops along the 1,000-km (600-mile) frontier.

UN peacekeeping force
The UN wants Ethiopia and Eritrea to accept the commission's decision

Observers say the delay may allow further advocacy work by the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments to take place in preparation for the decision.

But the focus remained on peace and reconciliation when diplomats, international agencies and many Ethiopians congregated to listen to the religious leaders.

"This is the happiest day because it is the day that we met our met our Ethiopian brothers in Addis Ababa," said the Grand Mufti of the Eritrean Islamic Council, Sheikh Alamin Usman Alamin.

"This mission is a holy mission and this day is really a historical day," he said.

"This short time conflict should be forgotten and reconciliation and peace should prevail among the two brotherly nations of Ethiopia and Eritrea."

See also:

06 Feb 02 | Africa
Ethiopians await border results
14 Dec 01 | Africa
All quiet on Eritrea's frontline
02 Nov 01 | Africa
Eritrea critic denies conspiracy
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