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Tuesday, March 2, 1999 Published at 17:21 GMT

World: Africa

Analysis: The war's bitter legacy

The conflict between neighbours is likely to affect the whole region

By regional expert Patrick Gilkes

Ethiopia - Eritrea conflict
Whether or not Ethiopia and Eritrea can agree on implementing the Organisation of African Unity's peace plan, their conflict has already had a big impact on the region.

Political alliances and certainties have been shaken.

One major casualty has been US policy, and its view of a "New African" leadership for the new millennium.

[ image:  ]
Never realistic, and already dented by events in the Democratic Republic of Congo, this has now collapsed, faced by the current conflict, and Eritrea's dismissive reaction to US efforts to mediate, notably by Susan Rice, the Assistant Secretary of State for Africa.

Eritrea regards the US as having taken Ethiopia's side, if only by its failure to support Eritrea.

The US orchestrated anti-Khartoum front, of Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea, now appears to have broken down irretrievably.

Sudan, of course, has welcomed the falling out. Relations between Ethiopia and Sudan, which see themselves as common victims of Eritrean aggression, have now moved a long way towards normalisation, though Ethiopia remains wary of possible Sudanese support for Islamist movements in Ethiopia or in Somalia.

Ties with Israel

Eritrea's previously close relationship with Israel has also cooled. Israel has tried to keep open its links with both countries, blocking an agreement by an Israeli company to supply upgraded MiG21s to Ethiopia last year, hoping to continue its use of the naval facilities in Eritrea's Dahlak Islands.

[ image:  ]
Like the US, however, it has been concerned by Eritrea's increasingly close relationship with Libya, to which President Issaias has made several recent visits, and by Eritrea's expressed interest in joining the Arab League, if at a slightly indefinite date.

Both sides have been courting each other's dissidents. Ethiopia has hosted meetings of various factions of the Eritrean Liberation Front, trying to bring the ELF-Revolutionary Council and the ELF of Abdullah Idris together.

It has offered support to three small Eritrean Marxist opposition parties, and to an opposition Kunama party, and has recently set up an Afar Red Sea Democratic Organisation to try and build up Afar resistance to the Eritrean government.

Somali connection

[ image: Somali faction leader Hussein Aideed (right]]
Somali faction leader Hussein Aideed (right]
Eritrea, in turn, has been trying to gain support among Ethiopian Afars - it has provided backing to the Djibouti opposition Front pour le Restauration de l'Unite et de la Democratie (FRUD) of Ahmed Dini, responsible for an attack on Ethiopian lorries on the Djibouti/Ethiopian border last October and, most recently, sent several planeloads of arms to Hussein Aydeed in Mogadishu, after he visited Asmara at the beginning of the year.

Most were intended for Ethiopian opposition movements in southern and south eastern Ethiopia including the Oromo Liberation Front and the Ogaden National Liberation Front.

In an effort to disrupt this policy, Ethiopia has been providing arms for opponents of Hussein Aydeed, including the new government in Puntland, and General Mohammed Said Hersi in Kismayo.

Djibouti seems set to continue as Ethiopia's main outlet to the sea. The last year has clearly shown that Ethiopia can manage without Assab. It would certainly be a convenience, but reports that the Eritrean government has been prodigal in the numbers of land mines planted in and around the port, render its future doubtful.

In Djibouti, the anointed successor to President Hassan Gouled Aptidon, Ismail Omar Guellah, has close relations with Ethiopia - Ethiopian troops have been deployed inside Djibouti to help with security against infiltration from Eritrea.

Legacy of bitterness

The propaganda war has been almost as fierce as the fighting. Eritrea has been loudly critical over the expulsion of over 50,000 Eritreans from Ethiopia since June last year. Amnesty International has also condemned the procedures adopted.

Ethiopia, which claims over 20,000 Ethiopians have also been forced out of Eritrea during the same time, hasn't forgotten Eritrea's equally arbitrary and forced expulsion of 150,000 Ethiopians, including several thousand Eritrean women and children, across the border in 1991/92.

Both sides are now deeply distrustful of each other. The legacy of bitterness will remain, fuelled by the attempts to support each other's opponents which is likely to continue, their different concepts of government - Ethiopia's ethnically based federal regions and Eritrea's highly centralised single party state - and substantial economic differences.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, has gained significant political credibility from the conflict, his vigorous response proving his "Ethiopianess".

Eritrea's President, Issaias Afwerki, has been weakened by a military defeat he didn't expect and which will be a major shock to the self-confident Eritreans.

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