A delegation from Eritrea will arrive in Addis Ababa on Thursday as Ethiopia’s prime minister appears ready to resolve one of Africa’s most intractable military stand-offs.
Eritrea fought a border war with its larger neighbour from 1998 to 2000 that killed about 70,000 people, and disputes still remain over the still-militarised frontier, in the town of Badme.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has outlined a series of radical reforms since taking office in April, made a surprising pledge this month to honour all the terms of a peace deal that ended the conflict.
Abiy, who was at a rally hit by a grenade attack on Saturday, said earlier this month he was prepared to honour international rulings that put Badme, which Ethiopia has refused to cede, in Eritrea.
On Monday, an Ethiopian Foreign Affairs ministry spokesman said representatives from the neighbouring Horn of Africa nation would arrive in Addis Ababa.
“A delegation from Eritrea will arrive in Addis Ababa this week,” he told Reuters.
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki raised hopes of a breakthrough on June 20 by describing the recent peace overtures from Abiy as “positive signals”.
Speaking at a Martyrs’ Day event in the capital, Asmara, the 72-year-old Afwerki said he was sending a delegation to Addis Ababa to understand the position of Ahmed, and “chart out a plan”.
It was the first response from Eritrea, one of Africa’s most closed and authoritarian states, to Abiy’s surprising pledge this month to honour all the terms of a peace deal that ended the 1998 yo 2000 war between the Horn of Africa neighbours.
Adding to the positive mood music, Abiy’s chief of staff said the prime minister welcomed Afwerki’s statement and promised the Eritrean delegation would be welcomed “warmly and with considerable goodwill”.
The border war nearly two decades ago drew comparisons to the First World War, with waves of soldiers forced to march through minefields towards Eritrean trenches, where they were cut down by machine gun fire.
As many as 80,000 are believed to have been killed in total.
Disputes over the still-militarised frontier, in particular the town of Badme, have kept the two sides at loggerheads.
Asmara had used the Ethiopian threat to justify hefty military spending and the long-term conscription that has caused hundreds of thousands of young men to flee, mostly to Europe.
Analysts said the road to any settlement would be arduous and long but if both sides continued to see the benefits of peaceful co-existence – and the international community kept up the pressure – it was possible.
“Sending a delegation to open talks with the Ethiopians is a major development,” said Martin Plaut, a Horn of Africa expert at London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies.
“It’s the kind of breakthrough that could end the no-war, no-peace stalemate that has prevailed since the end of the disastrous border war in 2000.”
Eritrea has no diplomatic relations with Ethiopia, although it has an embassy in Addis as part of its representation to the African Union, whose headquarters are in the Ethiopian capital.
Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after decades of guerrilla struggle.