By Irwin Arieff
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The stalemate between Horn of Africa neighbors Ethiopia and Eritrea is a major threat to stability that could trigger renewed war in the volatile region, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday.
"Not only does the overall situation remain unsettled, but it has also continued to worsen over the last month," Ban said in his latest progress report to the U.N. Security Council on the long-stalled Ethiopia-Eritrea peace process.
"The potential for this situation to deteriorate further or even to lead to renewed hostilities is real, especially if it is allowed to continue indefinitely."
Ban's warning as the 15-nation Security Council heads for a vote at the end of the month on a resolution expected to cut the peacekeeping mission to 1,700 U.N. troops from 2,300.
Last May the council trimmed the peacekeeping force to 2,300 troops from 3,300.
Ban's report recommends that the council extend the mission's mandate for another six months but is silent on whether it should further reduce the number of troops. Without a council vote, the mandate would expire Jan. 31.
U.N. troops were first sent to Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2000 to enforce a cease-fire ending a 1998-2000 border war that killed 70,000 people.
As part of the peace agreement, both countries pledged to accept a new border as set out by an international commission.
But the new border was never marked out after Ethiopia rejected part of it and Eritrea objected that Ethiopia was not being held to its word, leading to a four-year impasse.
More recently, Eritrea has piled restrictions on the U.N. force, arbitrarily arrested U.N. staff, ordered some humanitarian relief groups to leave the country, and sent armed personnel into a buffer zone set up by the United Nations between the two countries, Ban said.
"The current impasse is a serious source of instability for the two countries as well as the wider region," Ban said, pointing to the recent brief war in neighboring Somalia pitting government forces reinforced by the Ethiopian military against Islamist troops backed by Eritrea.
"The two governments need to take the political decision to put the conflict behind them, for the sake of their own people," Ban said.