Tuesday, March 2, 1999 Published at 17:24 GMT
Analysis: How allies became enemies
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi
By East Africa Correspondent Cathy Jenkins
Until then relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea had appeared to be excellent. For the West, Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, and the Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, were a new type of African leader who, it was hoped, would help bring about an African renaissance.
Until 1997 Eritrea had kept the Ethiopian currency. When it introduced its own, citing economic reasons, the relationship started to look shaky.
The long border shared by the two countries is in places mountainous, rocky and desolate. It has never been properly delineated.
Until last year that didn't seem to matter. Ethiopians seeking work crossed easily into Eritrea. Tens of thousands of Eritreans lived in Ethiopia.
Ethiopian and Eritrean officials held occasional committee meetings to discuss the issue, but these appeared to the outside world as cordial and unproblematic.
Maps and missiles
The border line was based on old colonial maps drawn up by the Italians. Suddenly the maps became the focus of a crisis.
Fighting broke out in May 1998 an area known as the Badme triangle, a 400 square km triangle of land. The Ethiopians, who administered it, said the Eritreans had invaded and they demanded their withdrawal.
In Addis Ababa, the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front said Ethiopia would not begin negotiations until Eritrean forces pulled back from its land. Eritrea said this was impossible because the land was Eritrean. Deadlock was reached.
There is still some bafflement among analysts as to why Ethiopia and Eritrea allowed the situation to deteriorate so far. Economically both seemed to have a lot to lose.
Ethiopia, which used the Eritrean ports of Massawa and Asab, immediately mounted a blockade and diverted its ships to Djibouti.
While this has caused economic damage to Eritrea, thousands of Ethiopians have also lost a place to work.
And whilst the West and other African leaders mounted their mediation efforts, the two leaders lost their reputation as the forward-looking men in the Horn of Africa.