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Friday, 22 February, 2002, 19:27 GMT
Envoys survey progress in Horn settlement
Ethiopian soldiers near the town of Zalambessa
Ethiopia and Eritrea fought for two years over the border dispute

By the BBC's Elizabeth Blunt in Addis Ababa

Members of the United Nations Security Council are visiting the Horn of Africa in advance of an announcement of a decision on the disputed border between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Both sides have promised to accept the ruling on the border as final and binding, but no-one can be absolutely sure that they will

The group of ambassadors led by Norway's Ole Peter Kolbe spent more than an hour on Friday with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in Addis Ababa.

They assured him of the UN's willingness to continue to support the peace process.

And they told him they intended to extend by another six months the mandate of the UN peacekeeping force sent in after the bitter war fought between 1998 and 2000.

Seeing for themselves

Most of the time the Security Council sits in New York making decisions that affect the lives of people on the other side of the world.

But just occasionally its members travel to see for themselves the places they are discussing and to meet the people their decisions affect.

A lot of the area that they fought over is arid and unproductive, but the fighting was bitter and cost tens of thousands of lives

These trips are a relatively new development. But they have proved popular.

Where once just a few of the countries on the Council would join the trip, now it is normal for all or nearly all member countries to be represented.

This latest excursion is brief - just three full days on the ground.

Enough for one day in Ethiopia, one in Eritrea and one down at the border itself - the cause of all the trouble.

A lot of the area that they fought over is arid and unproductive, but the fighting was bitter and cost tens of thousands of lives.

Now the border area is patrolled by a UN peace-keeping force some 4,000 strong.

Keeping the peace

The Security Council visit will be a morale booster for them and a chance for the delegation from New York to thank the peace-keepers for a job well done.

They have marked out a temporary security zone 25 kilometres wide and monitored the withdrawal of troops from this area.

And, since the agreement between the two sides was signed in Algiers just over a year ago, they have successfully kept the peace.

Not everything has gone smoothly. Not all the prisoners of war have been released, not all the mines have been removed.

And Eritrea, still smarting from having come off worse in the war, has not allowed the peace-keepers full access to that part of its territory adjoining the zone.

Critical stage

But even so, this has still been one of the UN's more successful operations.

Now the peace process is approaching the critical stage. While the peace-keepers are patrolling the border area, an independent commission has been sitting in the Hague to decide where the border should run.

Building on fire after Ethiopians raid Asmara airport
A ceasefire agreement was reached in June 2000

Very shortly it will announce its decision. Both sides have promised to accept this as final and binding, but no-one can be absolutely sure that they will.

Earlier this month, the UN Secretary General's special representative Joseph Legwaila in the region said the UN mission had decided to think positive at all times and they were not expecting problems.

But then he added that they also had to be realistic and have contingency plans for any eventuality.

Whether things go well or badly, there will be decisions to be made in the coming months - about whether the UN should expand, maintain or scale down its operation.

All the parties on both sides of the border will be lobbying the Security Council members hard on this visit to be sure that those decisions go the way that they want.

See also:

15 Feb 02 | Africa
Horn border ruling delayed
08 Oct 01 | Africa
Eritrea denies preparing for war
18 Jun 00 | Africa
Horn enemies sign peace deal
12 May 00 | Africa
Border a geographer's nightmare
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