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Troop buildup brings Ethiopia, Eritrea back to the brink

Region fearing a renewal of war

AKSUM, Ethiopia -- As an orange sun sank over the tin shacks of a new military base at this border city's airport last week, dozens of Ethiopian soldiers killed time playing soccer. They were waiting to be called to service as their country edged toward another conflict with Eritrea, just a short drive away.

The two countries fought a grisly, trench-style war between 1998 and 2000 over disputed slivers of the mountainous border. The fighting ended in a truce, but only after more than 70,000 lives were lost.

Now, there is a new standoff and a new buildup of forces. The troops in Aksum, diplomats said, are part of larger contingents positioned in freshly dug trenches along both sides of the 570-mile frontier. They estimated that there are about 130,000 on the Ethiopian side and 250,000 on the Eritrean side.

Officials in both countries have spoken on state television and radio, each presenting their country as the victim of aggression and making threats of retaliation. Analysts said the growing confrontation is distracting attention from internal problems in both impoverished countries and renewing fears of a rekindled war that would threaten regional stability.

In a report released last week, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said foreign organizations must ''urgently reengage if a disastrous new war between Eritrea and Ethiopia is to be averted."

A resumption of conflict, the report said, would destabilize and rearm the entire Horn of Africa, ''rekindling a proxy war in Somalia and undermining the fragile peace process in southern and eastern Sudan."

In an interview last week in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi charged that Eritrean leaders ''will not hesitate for a moment to start another war if they think they will profit from it. Our military balance has to be such to dissuade them."

In Eritrea, President Isaias Afwerki has recently restricted helicopter flights by UN monitors along the border and expelled 180 UN peacekeepers sent to help maintain a cease-fire. He also refused to meet with a delegation sent by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

In a recent interview with state media representatives in Asmara, Eritrea's capital, Isaias accused Ethiopia's leaders of rushing to war to cement power at a time when Meles and his ruling party have been criticized for crushing political dissent.

''They are trying to escape forward from the crisis by any means," Isaias said, according to the Eritrean government website. ''They are deflecting and drawing attention away from the crisis present now in Ethiopia. . . . The intention of igniting the war comes from the Ethiopia regime's crisis and its despair."

Civic leaders from both countries say a return to war would be mutual suicide. In the previous conflict, each side suffered high casualties among both fighters and civilians. And the war cost each country an estimated $1 million a day.

Although largely confined to several border towns, the conflict was particularly bitter because of ties between the two countries. They have a common culture and have high rates of cross-migration and intermarriage.

A decade ago, Meles and Isaias were hailed by US officials as part of a new generation of progressive and democratic African leaders. Today, both are increasingly unpopular at home, where they are criticized for failing to reduce desperate poverty and high unemployment.

To curb unrest, both leaders have jailed opposition leaders and sent riot police with live bullets to quell protests. And both have used the prospect of another deadly border war as a way to unite the populace against a foreign foe.

''The fear of war makes people forget all these other problems. . . . But the truth is these leaders are playing with our lives," said Firdi Mekonen, 41, a historian in Aksum. During the last conflict, the town was a staging ground for Ethiopian troops and a refuge for wounded fighters and civilians fleeing fighting.

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