Ethiopia and Eritrea opened indirect peace talks in Algiers on Tuesday in a bid to end the latest round of fighting that has seen Ethiopian forces thrust far into their Horn of Africa neighbor.
The talks opened at the El-Mithak state residence overlooking the capital. They began a day behind schedule because of the late arrival Monday of Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin.
The Algerian intermediary said shortly before the opening of the discussions that he felt there was "good will" all around. A first round of talks ended unsuccessfully on May 5 after six days.
Mesfin met first with Algeria's Justice Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, the intermediary in the proximity talks also involving Eritrean Foreign Minister Haile Woldensae.
Ouyahia is the special representative of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, current president of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which is sponsoring the talks. The negotiations opened shortly after Ethiopia announced its forces had withdrawn from southwestern areas of Eritrea.
Asmara however called on Addis Ababa to supply details on its troop redeployment in Eritrea and allow independent observers to verify the positions.
The talks had originally been scheduled to open Monday, the same day that Ethiopia brought its war to the Eritrean capital, Asmara, for the first time in two years by bombing the city's airport.
Since hostilities in the episodic border war resumed May 12, front lines have moved deep into undisputed Eritrean territory with Ethiopian forces present in large areas of the southwest and in several towns to the north of the central portion of the border.
Ethiopia has stressed its determination to put the Eritrean army out of action in its bid to settle the border war which was first launched in May 1998. "We have to incapacitate the Eritrean air force, and this operation was conducted in line with this objective," Ethiopia's chief of staff, Major-General Tsadkan Gebre-Tensae, said Monday after the airport bombing.
"My mission is to recover our sovereignty on all our territories and there are still small parts under their control," he said.
Eritrea has said it expects little from the talks.
"How can you be confident when you see violation after violation?" Yemane Ghebremeskel, spokesman for the Eritrean president's office told AFP this weekend.
Eritrea believes it has fulfilled its obligations as defined by the OAU, having quit, either willingly or by force, disputed areas of its border with Ethiopia.
Ethiopia, which the OAU has also asked to withdraw to positions held before the start of the war in May 1998, has long insisted its only objective was to get Eritrean troops off every inch of its soil.
But over the last week, wider ambitions emerged. Top officials have said Eritrea's army must be incapacitated, so as not to pose a risk to Ethiopia's "development agenda."
Anthony Lake, special envoy for US President Bill Clinton, has arrived in Algiers to attend the talks, and Italian Foreign Secretary Rino Serri, representing the European Union, was expected on Thursday.
The latest round of fighting has left hundreds of thousands of people displaced in Eritrea, and reportedly left tens of thousands of troops killed or wounded.
The costly war has meanwhile resurfaced just as international aid agencies are desperately trying to avert famine in Ethiopia.
While diplomats have described the war as senseless, analysts have said the conflict is really about state sovereignty, nation-building, access to port facilities and a dispute over currency.
Eritrea gained de-facto independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after Issaias Afeworki, now Eritrea's president, helped Meles Zenawi, now Ethiopia's prime minister, oust Mengistu Haile Mariam from power in Addis Ababa -- ALGIERS (AFP)
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