Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned that U.N. peacekeepers face an "alarming situation" in the tense Ethiopia-Eritrean border area following Eritrean restrictions on their movements, and he urged the Security Council to take action to end the "dangerous crisis" and prevent another war.
The council was scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon to discuss the dispute. Greece's U.N. Ambassador Adamantios Vassilakis said he plans to circulate a draft resolution calling for Eritrea to lift its ban on helicopter flights and vehicle movements and both countries to start discussions on their disputed border.
Eritrea informed the United Nations that it was banning helicopter flights by U.N. peacekeepers in its airspace in a buffer zone with Ethiopia starting Oct. 5. It also banned U.N. patrol vehicles from operating at night on its side of the 621-mile (1,000-kilometer) Temporary Security Zone dividing the two countries.
The zone was established after a December 2000 peace agreement that ended a 2 1/2-year border war between the Horn of Africa neighbors. The deal provided for an independent commission to rule on the position of the disputed border, but Ethiopia refused to accept the panel's April 2002 decision, which awarded the town of Badme to Eritrea.
Annan said in a letter to the council, circulated Tuesday, that he was ready to work with the council and key parties "to bring this dangerous crisis to an end, to conclude the peace process expeditiously, and to re-establish vital humanitarian activities in Eritrea."
He said the situation for the 3,300 U.N. peacekeepers and military observers "has seriously deteriorated" and the Eritrean restrictions have made it impossible for the United Nations to operate in 18 isolated posts out of a total of 40 locations.
Annan sent a letter last week urging Eritrea to lift its ban on peacekeeping flights, saying the move jeopardized troop safety along the buffer zone. In a blunt response on Thursday, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki rejected Annan's appeal, telling him that he lacks the "humanitarian high ground on matters of law, the rule of law and humanitarian issues." Afwerki said Annan and the United Nations have forfeited their "relevance" on matters related to the peace process.
In view of the Eritrean response, Annan again called on the Security Council "to exert its maximum influence" to get the restrictions on U.N. operations lifted and "to address the underlying causes of the stalemate in the peace process" including Ethiopia's refusal to accept the Boundary Commission's ruling.
At a meeting on Oct. 19 with countries contributing troops to the U.N. peacekeeping mission, he noted that India and Jordan expressed alarm at the helicopter ban and other restrictions, calling them unacceptable and urging the Security Council to send a strong message to Eritrea to lift the ban.
At the same time, Annan said, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told the press that members of the Eritrean defense force had infiltrated the Temporary Security Zone. The prime minister urged the United Nations to "take measures to restore the status quo," Annan said, AP reports.