UN Ethiopia-Eritrea peacekeepers move to Asmara

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 19 (Reuters) - U.N. peacekeepers monitoring a border security zone between Eritrea and Ethiopia are regrouping in the Eritrean capital of Asmara after Eritrea cut off their fuel and food, U.N. officials said on Tuesday.

The original plan had been to move to the Ethiopian side of the border, but Eritrea prevented the 1,700-strong force, known as UNMEE, from crossing.

“Due to the lack of cooperation by Eritrean authorities in the mission’s efforts to temporarily relocate into Ethiopia, UNMEE has been instructed to regroup in Asmara all personnel and equipment in Eritrea,” U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe said.

“This move will facilitate further relocation out of the country,” she told a news briefing.

The standoff between Eritrea and the United Nations reached crisis point last week when Eritrea cut off food supplies to the U.N. troops, according to U.N. officials.

The peacekeepers on the border between the two Horn of Africa foes had been struggling for months to deal with the fuel blockade before finally being ordered to move.

The mission started work in 2000, at the end of a two-year border war that killed an estimated 70,000 people.

They have been stationed in a 15.5-mile (25-km) buffer zone inside Eritrea. But Asmara has turned against the mission because of U.N. inability to enforce rulings by an independent boundary commission awarding chunks of Ethiopian-held territory, including the town of Badme, to Eritrea.

Eritrea’s foreign ministry has accused U.N. peacekeeping officials and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office of making “unwarranted accusations” and “distorting the reality” of the U.N. peacekeeping mission.

UNMEE consists mainly of Indian, Jordanian and Kenyan troops. U.N. officials said it had not yet been decided what they would do. One option was for them to fly home but that would raise problems about what would happen to their heavy equipment, the officials said.

“Right now we’re just waiting for the Eritreans to give us some feedback on what’s going to happen there,” one said.

Okabe said the move began at the weekend, but cited an incident in which two U.N. flatbed trucks carrying armored personnel carriers had been stopped inside a temporary security zone by Eritrean militiamen on Sunday, and were still there.

Ethiopia and Eritrea insist they will not start another war, but both have moved tens of thousands of troops to the border because of the dispute over their 620-mile (1,000 km) frontier. U.N. officials have expressed fears that the peacekeepers’ departure could spark a new conflict. (Editing by Alan Elsner)