DJIBOUTI/ASMARA (Reuters) - Border clashes between Eritrea and Djibouti killed nine Djiboutian soldiers and wounded 60 others in the first fighting in a decade between the Horn of Africa nations, a defense official said on Thursday.
Officials said the fighting between two of Africa’s smallest states stopped late on Wednesday. Eritrean and Djiboutian troops had exchanged fire since Tuesday along a part of their border overlooking strategic shipping lanes in the Red Sea.
Djibouti hosts French and U.S. military bases and is the main route to the sea for Eritrea’s arch-foe and Washington’s top regional ally, Ethiopia. France said its military was providing logistical support to Djibouti.
Africa’s youngest nation, Eritrea, has fractious ties with the West, which accuses it of backing Somali insurgents and expelling U.N. peacekeepers on its border with Ethiopia.
“The dead and injured are more today, up to nine dead and 60 wounded,” a Djiboutian military official said on condition of anonymity.
Officials said the fighting had stopped on Wednesday night.
There was no independent verification of events from the remote border area.
Without confirming or denying the clashes, Eritrea has dismissed Djibouti’s versions as “concocted animosity.”
“The Eritrean government ... will under no circumstance get involved in an invitation of squabbles and acts of hostility designed to undermine good neighborliness,” it said.
Analysts say the border row was unexpected since the frontier had been uncontested.
“It cannot be about the border ... I don’t see any reason to play up this problem of an unclear border except for ulterior motives,” said Jon Abbink, a Horn of Africa analyst.
The clashes erupted on Tuesday afternoon after a nearly two-month face-off. Djibouti accuses Asmara of entering its territory to build defenses.
“The Republic of Djibouti will valiantly defend its territorial integrity by all means,” Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh said while visiting wounded soldiers.
Eritrea President Isaias Afwerki has denied any aggression.
Djibouti’s smaller army of 11,000 troops had begun to call up demobilized soldiers and retired policemen.
Eritrea has 200,000 soldiers, but many are on its border with neighbor Ethiopia with whom it fought a 1998-2000 war. Since then, tensions have remained high.
Clashes on the Djibouti-Eritrea frontier broke out in the Ras Doumeira area, which straddles the Bab al-Mandib straits.
Experts say the only undecided area of the border is the tiny Ras Doumeira island next to a village of the same name.
France has a mutual defense treaty with Djibouti after that nation’s independence in 1977. It is also an important route for landlocked Ethiopia, which has vowed to protect its access to Djibouti’s port.
The United States and Ethiopia have blamed Eritrea for the clashes. France’s Foreign Ministry called on Eritrea to be “cooperative” and allow a neutral party to shuttle between Djibouti and Asmara for talks.
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Additional reporting by Tamora Vidaillet in Paris; Editing by Bryson Hull and Matthew Tostevin