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Word wars in the HornBy Mohamed Khaled
After five days of fierce fighting, Ethiopian government spokesperson Selome Tadesse issued a statement announcing that the Ethiopian defence forces had achieved "total victory" in their military counter-offensive 'Operation Sunset' against Eritrea on Friday 26 February. Ethiopia confirmed that Badme, the disputed region, had fallen into its hands, and declared that the Eritreans and President Afeworki had "suffered a monumental and humiliating defeat".
Confronted with serious setbacks on the battlefield, Eritrea seems to have chosen to support an OAU-sponsored initiative for a peaceful settlement of the dispute between the two neighbouring countries. In a letter to the UN Security Council, the Eritrean president stated that his government accepted the OAU proposal to pave the way for an expedited demarcation of the disputed territory.
Diplomats said Eritrea's surprise turnabout was a clear indication that its troops were in trouble after Ethiopia broke through the heavily fortified front at Badme on Friday and feared further advances. This has raised questions as to whether Eritrean acceptance of the OAU proposal will also mean acceptance of what has been widely described as their military defeat. In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Eritrean Foreign Minister Haile Wolde Tensaey described the Ethiopian claim of "total victory" as being for "internal consumption" only. "What happened on Friday was a systematic and predetermined change in our front lines of defence," said Tensaey. "For military reasons, we have to make a better line of defence, and we decided to withdraw of our own volition. There has been a misunderstanding regarding our position concerning the OAU proposal. We never rejected that proposal, but Ethiopia launched its offensive on 6 February without giving the negotiations a chance to proceed towards a peaceful settlement."
What remains to be seen is whether Ethiopia will pull its troops out from the Eritrean territories which they have only recently occupied. Both sides have claimed that they have inflicted heavy causalities on each other, and observers confirmed that the nature of the fighting was certain to have led to many dead and wounded on both sides.
United States President Bill Clinton welcomed the news that Eritrea favoured OAU mediation, and urged both sides to end the fighting immediately. Clinton, who has dispatched his former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake to the region several times in an attempt to broker a solution, made no mention of the Ethiopian advances in a statement welcoming the Eritrean acceptance. According to Clinton, the US "will continue to work with both parties to achieve a peaceful resolution to this conflict". However, some analysts are claiming that the US position over the last few months had betrayed a certain bias in favour of Ethiopia against Eritrea. Moreover, they claim that the OAU proposal -- which specifically states as a condition that Eritrea withdraw from the territories it has occupied -- is simply a replication of the US-Rwandan proposal, which failed to achieve any progress in solving the conflict.
However, the Eritreans themselves do not appear to be unduly worried by the matter of possible US bias. Instead, they point out that Ethiopia has embarrassed the US by breaking the air strikes ban which was brokered by the latter.
While an OAU delegation was due to arrive in Asmara for talks on the OAU proposal and a possible cease-fire agreement, there are still many grey areas which have to be cleared up regarding the future of the conflict. The Eritreans are accusing Ethiopia of persistently resorting to military means in search of a solution. "The Ethiopian parliament has this week passed a resolution rejecting the Security Council's call to halt hostilities and refrain from further use of force," Tensaey told the Weekly. "It is a clear signal that they want to continue fighting."
Meanwhile, an Ethiopian official source stated that his government would soon make its response to the cease-fire call known. However, Ethiopian spokesperson Tadesse expressed doubts as to the credibility of the Eritrean acceptance of the OAU proposal and did not rule out the possibility that this may simply be a manoeuvre designed to allow the Eritrean army breathing space to regroup and prepare for a new round of fighting.
It is difficult, therefore, to be optimistic about an enduring cessation to the fighting, as neither of the warring parties is likely to give up easily. According to observers, both governments have to justify to their people their decision to go to war, and the grave losses that have been inflicted. This would be difficult, were it to turn out that a peaceful solution had been possible all along.
Moreover, if the arbitration result were to come down in favour of Ethiopia, this would represent a moral defeat for Eritrea which would be even more harsh than a military defeat. "We are sure that we are not claiming a right which is not ours," said Tensaey. "The boundaries which were delineated under the colonial state confirm that the disputed territories are Eritrean. If a neutral demarcation is carried out on the basis of the colonial boundaries, it will prove our right."
Ethiopian sources, for their part, have repeatedly confirmed that they have no intention to penetrate any further into Eritrea than the disputed territories. But Tensaey claimed that Ethiopia does have a hidden agenda beyond the border dispute that has been the ostensible cause of fighting. He told the Weekly: "Ethiopian prisoners of war said the plan is to advance to Asmara, the capital, and topple the Eritrean government."