- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2001

ASMARA, Eritrea In the searing hot and arid highlands of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border, Western troops once more are trying to accomplish what they have spectacularly failed at so many times before to show that U.N. peacekeeping can work in Africa.

The stakes are high for the United Nations, whose image has been tarnished by the bungled peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone last summer and earlier debacles in Somalia and Rwanda.

Now, more than 3,700 troops have arrived to police a cease-fire ending one of the continent's bloodiest wars, including a Dutch-Canadian contingent, Danish administrators and Italian medics as well as Jordanians, Kenyan infantrymen and Bangladeshi demining specialists.

"This is the first time after a very long debate that Western countries are sending troops to Africa," said Dutch marine corps Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert, military commander of the U.N. forces.

"That is one of the reasons we must get it right. The international community's expectations are very high for us."

On the surface, the ingredients for a successful operation are in place. The United Nations moved smoothly to deploy most of the authorized 4,700 troops and has begun surveillance of the front lines with helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

A standing brigade command structure, based in Denmark and approved for use by the United Nations, was used to get the operation up and running quickly under the terms of a cease-fire agreement signed in December.

Confidence also got a boost in mid-January when Eritrea returned some 1,600 civilian detainees to Ethiopia, which reciprocated by returning 254 Eritrean prisoners of war after a grueling four-day trek through the Ethiopian mountains supervised by the International Committee for the Red Cross.

However, diplomatic wrangling has held up the next stage of the operation the beginning of U.N. patrols in a 15-mile-wide security zone that still bristles with weapons and some 200,000 soldiers on either side of a rocky, 600-mile front.

"Very soon, this hiccup will be eliminated and the temporary security zone … will be created," Joseph Legwaila, the United Nation's special representative to the peacekeeping mission, told reporters visiting a U.N. position near the front line.

But Gen. Cammaert described the dispute as a serious obstacle. "Without solving this problem, our whole mission is in danger," he said.

The agreement calls for Ethiopia, which occupies large sections of Eritrean territory, to withdraw to positions it held when the war began on May 6, 1998. But Ethiopia has balked at complying, accusing Eritrea of failing to redeploy troops as required by the agreement.

Eritrea, meanwhile, accuses Ethiopia of having occupied territory it did not hold before the war. Both sides agreed at a meeting Tuesday that Mr. Legwaila would survey the disputed areas and report back with recommendations a week later.

The precise border ultimately is to be decided by a delimitation committee, whose decisions both nations have agreed to respect. But officials close to the negotiations said Ethiopia may believe it establishes a stronger case for its definition of the disputed border by holding on to key areas.

Even so, Eritrea and Ethiopia are widely believed to be more interested in ending this war than were the parties in Somalia or Sierra Leone, which were plagued by unruly militias uninterested in a genuine peace.

Ethiopia made its point by capturing large swaths of Eritrea and driving Eritrea out of all the territory it had seized in the early days of the war, which dragged on for two years and drained both nations' treasuries while tens of thousands were killed and wounded.

Ethiopia's last rapid offensive ended with thousands of casualties as its troops ran into Eritrean forces fortified in the near-impregnable Eritrean highlands. Until those final bloody battles in May and June, both countries seemed to favor a military solution.

"The war has basically reinforced a kind of military stalemate. Eritrea now knows it cannot provoke conflict with Ethiopia, but Ethiopia knows it could never hold Eritrea," said Richard Reid, an assistant professor of East African history at the University of Asmara.

"The most difficult point is to overcome the mistrust and lack of confidence between the two parties. So far, the parties have done an extremely good job of holding to the cessation of hostilities, considering in many spots they are staring at each other from trenches within hand-grenade distance," Gen. Cammaert said.

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