By Jack Kimball and Andrew Cawthorne
ASMARA, May 13 (Reuters) – U.N. fears that a pullout of peacekeepers on the Eritrea-Ethiopia border may lead to a new war are unfounded scaremongering and a « gimmick » to cover the world body’s failings, Eritrea’s leader said on Tuesday.
In a rare interview with Western media, President Isaias Afwerki also told Reuters a United Nations effort to broker peace talks for Somalia this week were a U.S.-inspired attempt to undermine a legitimate resistance movement.
Eritrea and Ethiopia’s long-running enmity, including a 1998-2000 border war, and the conflict in Somalia, have polarised the Horn of Africa, one of the world’s poorest and most conflict-riven regions.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last month the withdrawal of the majority of 1,700 peacekeepers on the Eritrea-Ethiopia border, following a fuel cutoff by Asmara, risked new hostilities on the 1,000-km (620 mile) frontier.
« It is a gimmick and a cover-up for the failure of the (U.N.) Security Council and the Secretary-General to do anything to close this chapter for good, » said the 62-year-old former guerrilla fighter, who won power in 1991.
« They are playing the scare game. »
Asmara says the world body has long favoured regional power Ethiopia and the latest manifestation of that is its failure to force Addis Ababa to comply with a 2002 border ruling that gave the flashpoint town of Badme to Eritrea.
The United Nations blames Eritrea for forcing its peacekeepers to leave too early by measures like cutting off fuel supplies and banning helicopter flights.
Isaias said a November 2007 « virtual » demarcation of the border, by the same independent commission that ruled in 2002, buried the issue. « The job is finished. There won’t be any reason for any one of us to assume that tension may rise. »
Ethiopia had no legal grounds to invade Eritrea, and was anyway tied up with internal divisions, Isaias said.
« How can one possibly assume Ethiopia finding an excuse to go for any use of force? I frankly can’t believe that regime has expansionist dreams. »
Speaking at Asmara’s colonial-era presidential palace, Isaias also accused the United Nations of trying to divide Somalia’s opposition by hosting talks in Djibouti with the Western-backed Somali government.
« I have no idea why they’ve gone for this. It’s part of a plan meant to weaken the Somali resistance by dividing and weakening the Islamic Courts, dividing and weakening the (opposition) alliance, and creating problems here and there.
« No one seems to be interested in what the United Nations, with pressures from Washington, is trying to do … (It) may not bring in any result at all. »
Asmara hosts an umbrella group of exiled Somali opposition leaders, and says insurgents fighting the Ethiopian-backed government inside Somalia are a popular resistance movement unfairly characterised as terrorists by Washington and others.
« It is part of the scare policy, intimidating people, finding an excuse in terrorism to justify any wrongdoing, » he added, accusing Washington of trying to put a smokescreen over failed policies in Somalia and the Horn of Africa in general.
The United States and United Nations have accused Eritrea of fuelling the conflict in Somalia by sending weapons to insurgents, and Washington has threatened to put it on a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
« Trying to associate the resistance of the Somali people with terrorism is a mere fabrication, » Isaias said. He scorned the accusations against Eritrea as « lies » and accused Washington of a post-9/11 « addiction » to terrorism claims.
The United States is a major ally of Ethiopia and has used air strikes to try and kill what it says are al Qaeda suspects operating alongside militant Islamists in Somalia.
Isaias said Somalis were justified in turning to Islam as a way to move beyond failed clan-based politics. « It is not some fanatic association … There’s nothing wrong with adopting Islam as a solution, or Christianity for that matter. »