U.N. council set to lift Ethiopia-Eritrea arms ban

U.N. council set to lift Ethiopia-Eritrea arms ban

The U.N. Security Council plans to lift an arms embargo against Ethiopia and Eritrea on Wednesday as the United States demanded, despite misgivings the weapons ban would end too soon after fighting stopped.

Several nations may abstain on the controversial resolution, which was expected to be adopted by the 15-nation council anyway. Despite misgivings, diplomats said this was not an issue members were going to fight Washington over.

The arms embargo "will not be there by the weekend," Ethiopia's U.N. ambassador, Abdulmejid Hussein, told Reuters on Tuesday.

The United States argues that a formal Dec. 12 peace accord it brokered to end the two-year border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, meant the arms embargo could be lifted.

Other council members say the action is dangerous in view of continued disputes between the two Horn of Africa countries over implementing a disengagement of forces.

The arms ban was imposed last May 17 as punishment for renewed fighting in the border war. It was to lapse in May or whenever Secretary-General Kofi Annan reports that "a peaceful definitive settlement of the conflict" had been reached.

Washington argues that Annan has said as much while other members dispute this. Diplomats said Annan has his own doubts about the wisdom of move by the United States.

Border skirmishes escalated into full-scale war on May 6, 1998, when soldiers from Eritrea, on the Red Sea Coast, moved into what Ethiopia, its landlocked southern neighbor, said was its territory.

Tens of thousands of soldiers were killed in First World War-style trench warfare during the conflict and tens of thousands of others were taken prisoner or displaced from their homes before the June cease-fire. An estimated 800,000 people fled their homes amid drought and a threatened famine.


Under the peace pact, the United Nations is to monitor the border with 4,200 troops. Canada and the Netherlands, with soldiers in the U.N. force, object to the arms ban being lifted so soon, saying Ethiopia has better uses for its money.

But Ethiopia's Hussein as well as U.S. officials have said that lifting the embargo would allow nations to offer mine clearance assistance to the two countries, which is forbidden under the arms embargo. U.N. officials, however, say that weapons-type materials are permitted if brought into the country under U.N. auspices.

"The inference there is that we are going to go on a shopping spree for arms," Hussein said. "But our current budget clearly shows what our priorities are, and that is development. There are unfortunately already plenty of arms in the Horn of Africa," he said.

Under the peace agreement, Ethiopia is to pull back to positions it held before the war broke out and Eritrea is to withdraw to 15 miles (25 km) from Ethiopian positions.

To date the two nations have failed to reach agreement on the repositioning of troops, arguing over which areas were under whose administration before the war broke out.

The accord calls for an independent commission, based in Geneva, to demarcate the 600-mile (965 km) disputed border, while other commissions are to address compensation for war damages, an exchange of prisoners and the return of displaced people to their homes. The border commission is expected to complete its work in three years.

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