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Friday, 12 May, 2000, 14:01 GMT 15:01 UK
Diplomats fail to bridge the gap
Meles and Holbrooke
Holbrooke's UN mission failed to secure an agreement
By BBC News Online's Justin Pearce

Ethiopia and Eritrea both say they want a peaceful solution in their border conflict, yet fighting has broken out once again following the collapse of yet another round of peace talks.

Both countries have agreed in principle to a peace plan drawn up by the Organisation of African Unity.

But right from the start, Ethiopia has been unhappy with a section of the peace plan dealing with what are known as the technical arrangements for the implementation of a ceasefire.

Ethiopia insists that a precondition for peace talks must involve a return to what it calls the status quo ante - in other words, for both sides to withdraw from territory occupied after the outbreak of hostilities.

Eritrean soldier
Eritrean claims are based on colonial treaties
Eritrea rejects the idea of bringing this condition into the agreement, and accuses Ethiopia of not being committed to the peace process.

The Ethiopians are not prepared to begin face-to-face peace talks as long as Eritrean troops remain on soil which Ethiopia sees as its own.

Territorial claims

On the western front - around Badme - Ethiopia has already recaptured the territory taken by Eritrea at the start of the war.

But Ethiopian anger remains over the previously Ethiopian town of Zalambessa, which Eritrea declared to be sovereign Eritrean territory after taking it in battle.

Ethiopian soldier
Ethiopia insists on a return to the situation before the outbreak of war
The most recent peace efforts - initiated by the United Nations Security Council and led by US envoy Richard Holbrooke - have been directed at getting Eritrea to accept an amendment to the technical arrangements, to accommodate the Ethiopian concerns.

Eritrea has refused to move significantly, arguing that Ethiopia had accepted the OAU plan, and that it was therefore not open to further alteration.

Treaty

The opposing positions taken by the two countries reflect the differing basis of their territorial claims.

Ethiopia's claims of sovereignty are based first and foremost on the territory which remained under its administration after Eritrea gained independence - with the blessing of the Ethiopian Government - in 1993.

Eritrea's claims, on the other hand, are based on the 100-year-old treaties defining the boundary between the then Italian colony of Eritrea, and the independent kingdom of Ethiopia.

The Eritrean case argues that since those treaties were drawn up, Ethiopian control has been extended little by little into territory that is rightly Eritrean - and this prompted Eritrea to move its forces into previously Ethiopian-held territory in May 1998.

Ethiopia argues that a final peace settlement should be based not solely on the treaties, but on other considerations as well.

This would allow Ethiopia to make a case based on the actual area of Ethiopian control at the time when Eritrea gained independence in 1993.

The area of territory in dispute may be small. But with neither country prepared to talk to a neighbour which it sees as an unfriendly occupying power, successive peace missions have come and gone, without the two parties meeting face-to-face.

See also:

12 May 00 | Africa
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