Ethiopia claims win at Hague

Nation says tribunal has ruled in its favor in Eritrea land dispute


NAIROBI, Kenya - Ethiopia claimed victory yesterday in its border dispute with Eritrea after an independent tribunal at The Hague in the Netherlands handed down a ruling. But the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration was not made public, and Eritrea branded Ethiopia's claims as lies.

The two countries went to war in 1998 over the placement of the 620-mile border. The conflict, which went on for two years, left as many as 80,000 people dead.

The five-member court delivered the ruling to the two governments yesterday morning, but officials agreed to delay public disclosure of the decision until tomorrow. That did not stop both sides from trying to put a positive spin on the long-awaited ruling, which is expected to have significant political repercussions in the two countries.

The leaders of both have said they will abide by the decision by the panel of experts, although President Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia will probably face criticism at home if they are seen as losing significant ground.

Some of Zenawi's domestic critics blame him for allowing Ethiopia to give up Eritrea, which was once an Ethiopian province. Afewerki has cracked down on political opponents over the past year, including some who criticized the war.

Once an Italian colony, Eritrea was annexed by Emperor Haile Selasse as Ethiopia's northernmost province in 1962. But guerrillas from Eritrea and Ethiopia teamed up in 1991 to defeat the emperor's successor, Mengistu Haile Mariam. Two years later, Eritrea became an independent nation in a peaceful deal.

But Eritrea's border with its southern neighbor was never defined, and a series of economic and land disputes between the two countries broke out in 1997. Full-fledged war was declared in 1998 after Ethiopia accused Eritrea of invading the border town of Badme.

Eventually, after heavy casualties on both sides in what amounted to trench warfare, Ethiopia won a string of military victories in which its troops moved deep into Eritrean territory. The two governments agreed to lay down their arms only on the arrival of an international peacekeeping force. Another major aspect of the cease-fire agreement was the border ruling.

Yesterday, Ethiopia's foreign minister, Seyoum Mesfin, called a news conference in Addis Ababa to claim that the decision swings heavily in Ethiopia's favor.

"This is a victory of peace over aggression and violence," said Mesfin, who signed the cease-fire agreement with his Eritrean counterpart in Algiers in June 2000. "It is a victory of law over the rule of the jungle."

Mesfin, who had reviewed the ruling, said Ethiopia had been granted possession of a string of disputed villages, from Zalamebessa and Bure to the west to Badme to the east.

Badme, a small town largely overlooked by both countries before the war, has taken on symbolic importance as the site of the first battle. Officials who had seen the ruling were quoted by news agencies as saying that Eritrea received disputed land to the west of Badme.

"Ethiopia accepts the ruling," the foreign minister said. "Ethiopia is satisfied. We hope that the decision will once and for all seal any attempt by military adventurers to change the boundary by means of force."

But the Eritrean government, without going into detail, disputed Ethiopia's claims. Eritrean state television said yesterday, "Whatever the Ethiopian government has announced is a lie."

The television showed a map of the border but gave no indication of the specifics of the border ruling. Tensions between the two countries remain so high that the United Nations peacekeepers patrolling a 15-mile- wide security zone along the disputed border went on a heightened state of alert before yesterday's decision.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has urged the two countries to accept the ruling as a milestone in the process toward peace.

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