Government downplays helicopter restrictions

Eritrea downplayed the significance of restricting UN helicopters on Thursday, describing recent remarks by the Ethiopian prime minister as duplicitous.

Speaking to journalists for the first time since Eritrea grounded UN peacekeeping helicopters earlier this month, a senior government official said that recent comments by Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi were offensive.

Yemane Ghebremeskel, a presidential adviser in Eritrea, was referring to remarks made by Meles in Addis Ababa on Wednesday. The Ethiopian prime minister told reporters in the capital that the flight restrictions were a violation of the peace agreement signed by the two countries, adding that the UN "should take necessary measures to restore the status quo."

"I find the audacity of the prime minister marvelling," said Ghebremeskel. "If he is serious, it is an extreme case of duplicity because Ethiopia and the prime minister have violated the Algiers Agreement flagrantly and repeatedly."

The Algiers Agreement was signed at the end of the 1998-2000 border war between the two countries, in which an estimated 70,000 people from both sides were killed. Both nations agreed to demarcate their border as decided by an independent boundary commission.

Ethiopia later rejected the commission's decision, however, and the two countries have been locked in a stalemate ever since. While the Ethiopian government has maintained repeatedly that it wants to discuss the issue, it declined an invitation to meet representatives from the boundary commission and Eritrea in London in February. Meanwhile, Eritrea refuses to negotiate an agreement that was meant to be "final and binding".

Eritrea still has not explained why it imposed the helicopter restriction, which has compromised the UN's ability to cover the 1,000-km long and 25-km wide Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) running along the boundary of the two countries.

The measure has forced the UN to reduce the number of peacekeeping posts along the border from 40 to 18 and redistribute its troops; brought a halt to demining activities in the area; and delayed urgent medical treatment for two UN peacekeepers that were injured in a traffic accident in the TSZ.

Ghebremeskel refused to discuss the helicopter restrictions.

"If anything Eritrea has shown the maximum patience, the maximum restraint so far," he said.

"We feel both Ethiopia and the Security Council have violated the agreements," he added, expressing his country's frustration with the lack of border demarcation and with the international community in general.

"They continue to pamper Ethiopia. They continue to pamper the prime minister in spite of his violations," he said.