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Thursday, 1 June, 2000, 11:55 GMT 12:55 UK
Analysis: Ethiopia's strong hand
Ethiopians raise their flag in Zalambessa
Ethiopia's gains strengthen its negotiating position
By BBC News Online's Justin Pearce

As Ethiopia and Eritrea continue their peace talks in Algiers, both sides have been doing their best to present themselves as having the initiative.

Ethiopia speaks of the Eritrean army being routed, while the Eritreans talk about a tactical withdrawal. While neither picture is entirely accurate, the Ethiopians have the upper hand on the ground - and this is bound to affect the outcome of negotiations.

Eritrean demonstration
Eritreans in Rome voice their support for the peace plan
Eritrea has enough soldiers to keep fighting for the immediate future - but it is unlikely that it would ever win a decisive victory.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki will want to maintain his prestige - and in a country where memories of the liberation struggle are strong, maintaining a belligerent stance could help keep the Eritrean public on his side.

But engaging the Ethiopians in war once again would mean running the risk of an unequivocal defeat which it would be impossible for Mr Isaias to play down.


Ethiopia will be using its military advantage to wring as much from the negotiations as it can.

Since the war began two years ago, Addis Ababa has accused Asmara of trying to "create facts on the ground" by moving its forces onto disputed territory - and Ethiopia has consistently refused to start negotiating until that position was reversed.

Ethiopia has now achieved its objective - and continues to insist that it has no ambitions beyond regaining control of the territory that it sees as its own.

Although Ethiopia has never stated outright the principles on which it would like to see the border drawn, it is clear that Addis Ababa puts a high priority on holding on to all the territories which it administered at the time of Eritrean independence.

Eritrean prisoner of war
Eritrean soldiers have been taken prisoner
Eritrea, on the other hand, has said consistently that it wants the border to follow the century-old treaties which defined the boundaries of the Italian colony of Eritrea.

Borders shift

After Eritrea was incorporated into Ethiopia in 1953, the old colonial boundary became nothing more than an internal administrative division - and by the 1970s, the Addis Ababa government had in any case lost effective control of most of Eritrea, and the neighbouring province of Tigray.

The liberation movements fighting in Eritrea and Tigray against the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam eventually found common cause - but one issue that provoked tension between the two movements was the exact course of the border between their two spheres of influence.

By the time the war ended, certain pieces of land which the 1902 treaties would have put inside Eritrea, had passed into Tigrean control.

Eritrean soldiers
Eritrea cannot muster as many troops as its larger neighbour
The OAU has always regarded colonial boundaries as sacrosanct, which suggests that an eventual decision would favour Eritrea.

Ambiguities remain, both over interpretation of the treaties and the demarcation of exactly which land was controlled by Ethiopia in 1993.

Ethiopia already wields considerable authority as the host of the OAU, and as the only pre-colonial African state which survived the 19th century carve-up of the continent by European powers.

Ethiopia has had some success in convincing international opinion of its belief that Eritrea was the aggressor in the two-year war, and might yet seek war reparations in addition to its territorial claims.

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