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U.S. Department of State

Department Seal Susan E. Rice, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs
Testimony, House International Relations Committee
Africa Subcommittee
Washington, DC, May 25, 1999
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The Ethiopian-Eritrean War:
U.S. Policy Options


Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for inviting me to testify today on the conflict in the Horn of Africa. Much like the crisis in Sierra Leone, which I had the opportunity to discuss with your subcommittee members 2 months ago, the war in the Horn of Africa threatens a broad swath of Africa as well as United States' interests in the region as a whole.

The Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict, which began in May 1998, has substantially damaged the economic growth and development of Ethiopia and Eritrea and has led to humanitarian suffering on both sides of the border. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost and thousands more have been maimed.

The United States and others in the international community have consistently called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and speedy implementation of the Organization of African Unity's Framework Agreement. We continue to work with the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity to secure and implement a lasting peace.

Origins of the Conflict/Escalations of Hostilities

The origins of the war are complex. During the 1980s, two liberation fronts--the Tigray People's Liberation Front and the Eritrea People's Liberation Front--joined forces against Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, although differences between the two led to occasional disputes. Mengistu's brutal Derg regime was toppled in 1991, and Eritrea gained formal independence in 1993. As a result, Ethiopia became landlocked, with a common border established almost 100 years ago between the Italian colony of Eritrea and Ethiopia never fully and precisely delineated or demarcated. It is important to note that the two new governments enjoyed such strong bilateral relations that neither they nor the international community considered formal determination of the border an immediate priority.

In the year leading to the outbreak of fighting, relations between the two former allies deteriorated, exacerbated by economic tensions. A border skirmish occurred on May 6, 1998 at Badme. A week later, Eritrea sent troops and armor into and beyond Badme into territory administered by Ethiopia. After several weeks of fighting, several areas previously administered by Ethiopia--the Badme area and areas near Zela Ambessa and Bure, south of the port of Assab--fell under Eritrean control.

As the ground fighting escalated, in June of 1998, Ethiopia launched airstrikes against Asmara airport. Eritrea made retaliatory strikes against the Ethiopian towns of Mekele and Adigrat, south of Zela Ambessa, hitting a school. Both sides then agreed to a U.S.-brokered airstrike moratorium, and fighting decreased to occasional exchanges of artillery and small-arms fire over a 9-month period.

Both Ethiopia and Eritrea used the intervening months to acquire new military stockpiles, including state-of-the-art fighter aircraft and artillery, and to recruit, train, and deploy tens of thousands of new soldiers. The United States actively discouraged suppliers to both parties, and the UN Security Council urged governments not to provide weapons to exacerbate the problem. Publicly, Ethiopia continued to demand a complete and absolute return to the status quo ante of May 6, 1998. Eritrea insisted that some of the area it occupied after May 6, 1998 was Eritrean territory.

Fighting resumed on February 6, 1999 when Ethiopian forces attacked, eventually displacing Eritrean forces from the disputed area of Badme. Ethiopia employed fighter-bombers, helicopter gunships, and reconfigured transport aircraft in tactical support of ground operations. Ethiopia later launched an unsuccessful counter-offensive on the Zela Ambessa front in mid-March. Eritrea failed to re-take Badme in subsequent fighting at the end of March. In April, Ethiopia struck an Eritrean military training facility and other targets deep within Eritrea. A week and a half ago, Ethiopian aircraft bombed sites at Zela Ambessa, Badme, and the port of Massawa. Although there has been a lull in the ground fighting over the past few weeks, press reports from yesterday indicate there were clashes between ground forces this past weekend at Badme.

United States' Interests

The United States has significant interests in ending the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea as soon as possible. The current conflict threatens regional stability and threatens to reverse Ethiopian and Eritrean progress in economic and political development.

The United States has important national security interests in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia's and Eritrea's neighbor, Sudan, has long supported international terrorism, fostered the spread of Islamic extremism beyond its borders, actively worked to destabilize neighboring states, including Ethiopia and Eritrea, and perpetrated massive human rights violations against its own citizens. Since the conflict began last year, Sudan has increasingly benefited from the hostilities between its former adversaries. Eritrea recently signed an accord with Sudan to normalize relations. Ethiopia has renewed air service to Khartoum and has made overtures to Sudan for improved relations as well. Both sides have moved to reduce support to Sudanese opposition groups.

Eritrea's President Isaias has made several trips to Libya--Africa's other state sponsor of terrorism--for frequent consultations with Colonel Qadhafi, and has joined Qadhafi's "Community of Saharan and Sahelian States."

We are very concerned by credible reports that Eritrea has delivered large quantities of weapons and munitions to self-proclaimed Somalia President Hussein Aideed for the use of a violent faction of the Oromo Liberation Front. The terrorist organization Al-Ittihad may also be an indirect recipient of these arms. Ethiopia also is shipping arms to factions in Somalia. The recent upsurge of violence in Somalia is, in part, related to these new developments.

Increased activity by a violent faction of the OLF in the south and the east has led to crossborder raids by Ethiopian security forces along its frontiers with Kenya and Somalia. These developments clearly reflect a dangerous trend.

Prior to this conflict, Ethiopia and Eritrea played a constructive role in the Great Lakes region. Their current dispute with each other has precluded them from continuing to take such a role in this volatile area and other areas of the continent where we had foreseen mutually beneficial cooperation.

The security costs of the conflict are matched, if not exceeded, by the grave humanitarian consequences of the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost and hundreds of thousands displaced. Approximately 300,000 Ethiopian and 100,000 to 200,000 Eritrean civilians have been forced from their homes and fields near the border by the conflict. An estimated 60,000 Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean descent have been deported from Ethiopia to Eritrea, and an estimated 20,000 Ethiopians have left Eritrea under duress. We have made clear that we consider the practice of deportation to be a fundamental violation of individual rights. The nature of these expulsions and the arrangements made for transfer and holding of property were clearly susceptible to abuse.

United States' Response

Immediately upon the outbreak of hostilities in May 1998, I led two interagency missions to Ethiopia and Eritrea to facilitate a peaceful resolution of the dispute. Working with the Government of Rwanda, we proposed a series of steps to end the conflict in accordance with both sides' shared principles and international law. These recommendations, endorsed by the OAU and the UNSC, later informed development by the OAU of its Framework Agreement. These initial missions also resulted in agreement by the two parties to the airstrike moratorium, which remained in effect until February 6, 1999. Beginning in October, President Clinton sent former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake and an interagency team from the State Department, the National Security Council, and the Department of Defense on four missions to Ethiopia and Eritrea, the most recent occurring in early 1999. We are grateful for Mr. Lake's tireless work on behalf of the President and the Secretary of State. His intensive efforts, which still continue, have been aimed at helping both sides find a mutually agreed basis for resolving the dispute without further loss of life. Working closely with the OAU and the UNSC, Mr. Lake and our team put forth numerous proposals to both sides consistent with the OAU Framework. In December, Ethiopia formally accepted the Framework Agreement. Eritrea did not, requesting clarification on numerous specific questions.

Fighting resumed on February 6 while UN envoy Ambassador Mohammed Sahnoun was in the region still seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Following this first phase of fighting, Eritrean troops were compelled to withdraw from Badme--an important element of the draft OAU Framework Agreement. Subsequent Eritrean acceptance of the Framework was welcomed by the United States and the UNSC but was greeted with skepticism by Ethiopia. Ethiopia instead demanded Eritrea's unconditional, unilateral withdrawal from all contested areas that Ethiopia had administered prior to last May.

On April 14, Prime Minister Meles of Ethiopia offered a cease-fire in return for an explicit commitment by Eritrea to remove its forces unilaterally from contested areas. He later added that Eritrean withdrawal must occur within an undefined but "short" period.

Eritrea continues to demand a cease-fire prior to committing to withdraw from disputed territories. Ethiopia insists that a cease-fire and implementation of the OAU Framework Agreement can only follow an explicit Eritrean commitment to withdraw from all territories occupied since the conflict erupted on May 6, 1998.


A joint Organization of African Unity/United Nations effort to urge both sides to accept a cease-fire and begin implementing the framework agreement continues. The United States Government remains actively engaged, in support of the OAU, with both Eritrea and Ethiopia to secure a peace settlement.

There is a need, however, to not only end the conflict as quickly as possible but also ultimately to repair, over the long-term, strained relations in the Horn. A resolution of the border war may be attainable. The task of rebuilding both countries and mending ties between Ethiopia and Eritrea to ensure long-term sustained peace and mutual security will be especially difficult. It will require due attention and support from the United States and the international community. Mr. Chairman, I look forward to continuing to work with you and other members of this subcommittee as we continue to pursue our shared interest in forging a peaceful resolution to this tragic conflict.

[end of document]

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