June 12, 2008 / 8:01 PM / 10 years ago

Eritrea urged to withdraw from Djibouti border

DJIBOUTI/ASMARA (Reuters) - Arab and Western nations called on Eritrea on Thursday to withdraw its troops from the border with Djibouti following clashes that killed at least six Djiboutian soldiers and wounded over 50 others.

Officials said the first fighting for a decade between the Horn of Africa neighbors, two of the continent’s smallest states, stopped late on Wednesday. Troops from both sides had exchanged fire since Tuesday along a part of their frontier that overlooks 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 Arab League called on Eritrea to withdraw its forces immediately from the border area, stressing the need to respect Djibouti’s sovereignty, Egypt’s state news agency MENA said.

It said the League took the decision during an emergency session to discuss with the crisis.

The United States and Ethiopia have blamed Eritrea for the clashes. France urged Eritrea to be “cooperative” and let a neutral party shuttle between Djibouti and Asmara for talks.

The Djiboutian Defense Ministry put the toll from fighting at six dead, eight seriously wounded and 54 with minor wounds. A Djiboutian military official earlier said nine soldiers had been killed and 60 wounded.

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.

UNEXPECTED

At the United Nations, the Security Council discussed the conflict and members expressed deep concern, calling on both sides to exercise maximum restraint and re-establish dialogue, council President Alejandro Wolff of the United States said.

Speaking for the United States, however, Wolff lashed out at Eritrea’s “aggression,” which he said was part of “a pattern of irresponsible destabilizing behavior by Eritrea.”

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 face-off lasting nearly two months. Djibouti accuses Asmara of entering its territory to build defenses. Eritrean 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.

(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http:/africa.reuters.com/)

Additional reporting by Tamora Vidaillet in Paris and Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations; Editing by Bryson Hull, Matthew Tostevin and Xavier Briand

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