Ethiopia, Eritrea may go to war "in weeks" - report

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NAIROBI, Nov 5 (Reuters) Horn of Africa enemies Ethiopia and Eritrea may return to war over their disputed border in a matter of weeks if there is no major international push to halt them, an influential think-tank warned today.

A 1998-2000 war on the boundary killed 70,000 people and brought untold hardship to two of the world's poorest nations.

Now analysts are warning of a repeat as troops build up ahead of an end-November deadline by an independent boundary commission for Ethiopia and Eritrea to mark out their border.

''The risk that Ethiopia and Eritrea will resume their war in the next several weeks is very real,'' wrote the International Crisis Group (ICG) in a report on the growing crisis.

''A military build-up along the common border over the past few months has reached alarming proportions. There will be no easy military solution if hostilities restart -- more likely is a protracted conflict on Eritrean soil, progressive destabilisation of Ethiopia and a dramatic humanitarian crisis.'' The ICG urged the United States and the United Nations to flex their muscles ''to give both sides the clearest possible message that no destabilising unilateral action will be tolerated.'' Washington sees Ethiopia as its best ally in the region, but ties with Eritrea have deteriorated so much it may put Asmara on its list of terrorism sponsors for backing Somali Islamists.

The United Nations has a peacekeeping force of 1,700 people charged with monitoring a security buffer zone on Eritrea's side of the 1,000-km frontier.

''International indifference of mistaken confidence could cost the people of the Horn of Africa dearly,'' the ICG added.

The think-tank report came after Eritrea accused Ethiopia for the third time in a week of planning an invasion, an allegation Addis Ababa has termed an ''absurd'' fabrication.

The ICG cited US estimates that Eritrea had 4,000 soldiers, supported by artillery and armour, in the ''supposedly demilitarised TSZ'' as well as 120,000 troops nearby.

Despite an offensive against insurgents in its east, and a foreign mission in Somalia where it is helping the government fight Islamist rebels, Ethiopia also maintains 100,000 troops on its border with Eritrea, the ICG added, quoting US estimates.

''The situation could hardly be more explosive,'' it said.

The neighbours have been in dispute since the independent boundary body awarded Eritrea the Badme town in a 2002 ruling.

Although it now says it accepts the ruling, Ethiopia is still insisting on dialogue over implementation.

''Eritrea has right on its side on this point but has played its cards very badly,'' the ICG said, referring to Eritrea's disputes with the United Nations and expulsion of foreign staff.

''Ethiopia has played its hand skilfully. It has used its position as the major power in the region to win US toleration of its intransigence,'' it added.

''It would not be surprising if Addis Ababa believes an effort in the near future to stage a coup in Asmara and use force against an Eritrean government that has few friends would also be tolerated in Washington.'' Both run by former rebel leaders, Ethiopia's 81 million population dwarfs Eritrea's 5 million.

The ICG forecasts that if war breaks out, Ethiopia would seek to take Asmara and Assab port to topple Eritrea's government.

Frustrated by lack of progress, the boundary commission says the nations have until the end of this month to mark the border physically, or it will fix the border on maps and let it stand.

Diplomats worry that date could prove a trigger.

The ICG took a swipe at both nation's authoritarian governments, calling Eritrea ''one of the most repressive regimes in Africa'' and saying Ethiopia has ''no intention to genuinely democratise.'' REUTERS SZ SSC1215

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