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Friday, 12 April, 2002, 12:50 GMT 13:50 UK
Tense Horn awaits border decision
UN mission
Ethiopia and Eritrea fought for two years over the border
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By the BBC's Martin Plaut

On Saturday 13 April a decision will be handed down in the Netherlands that should fix the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea for all time.

The Boundary Commission, established under the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, has been working on its decision since a peace treaty ended the border war between the countries two years ago.

UN peacekeeping force
Ethiopia and Eritrea have agreed to accept the commission's decision
Both countries are now nervously awaiting the decision.

Although both have promised the UN that they will accept whatever decision is provided by the legal experts, the outcome could be difficult for either, if it goes against them.

Peace agreement

Their formal agreement was given in Algeria in December 2000, when the two sides signed a peace agreement.

But both governments will have their work cut out explaining why they went to war, and lost so many lives, if the Commission finally decides that a great deal of territory is to be handed over to the other side.

President Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea insists that the peace treaty was binding.

"We did agree in Algiers, in a comprehensive peace agreement, that the Boundary Commission based on the colonial treaties," President Afewerki says. "I don't think there is any way of questioning the validity of that sacrosanct principle."

The government in Addis Ababa is equally committed to the Algiers agreement.

Obstacles remain

But not everyone in Ethiopia is as willing to accept whatever is decided, since the ruling could formally end any Ethiopian claim to the port of Assab.

And there are other concerns. In the northern province of Tigray, from which the current government in Addis Ababa sprang, officials are openly questioning of the forthcoming decision.

Dr Solomon Inquai is speaker of the regional assembly, and is determined not to lose key border villages.

"These are Ethiopian territories, and remain Ethiopian. There is no force that can change this reality. We await justice, but will not be bound by any unjust decision that is based on appeasement and compromise," he said.

The Ethiopian and Eritrean forces are seperated by a narrow zone, patrolled by 4,200 United Nations troops.

UN mandate

The UN operation is led by a Botswanan, Legwaila Joseph Legwaila, and he is under no illusions about the obstacles that the UN now faces. When the judgement is announced one side or other could be very unhappy with the outcome.

There could be real pressures on his troops, says Mr Legwaila.

"People should not think that when the decision on delimitation is promolgated it will be smooth sailing.

If the parties decide to go back to war we will pack up and go home, because that is the end of the mandate

General Patrick Cammaert, UN mission commander

"We may have more problems than we have right now. I just hope that we will have fewer. But the UN mission is preparing for whatever will confront us."

General Patrick Cammaert is in charge of the UN troops. He says that if there is an outbreak of fighting his orders are clear.

"If the parties decide to go back to war we will pack up and go home, because that is the end of the mandate. The Security Council will order us home."

The lawyers working in the Hague seem a world away from the tensions along the border, but all eyes will be focused on the Hague when the decision is announced on Saturday.

See also:

07 Mar 02 | Africa
Horn border ruling delayed again
24 Feb 02 | Africa
UN envoys upbeat after Horn tour
15 Feb 02 | Africa
Horn border ruling delayed
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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