Conflict hampering fight against poverty - UN envoy

Millions of people remain in abject poverty in Ethiopia as a result of the impact of the country's border dispute with Eritrea, a UN envoy to the region said on Friday.

Lloyd Axworthy said both impoverished nations are missing vital trade and social opportunities that would lift millions of people out of their dire economic situation.

Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a two and a half-year border war between May 1998 and December 2000 in which tens of thousands of people were killed. Although a peace deal was agreed, tensions remain over their still disputed common frontier.

"More people are condemned to poverty than are lifted from poverty because of this conflict," Axworthy told reporters in Addis Ababa. "The on-going conflict on the border has an impact on some 15 million Ethiopians being denied the opportunity to rise above the poverty line," he added.

Axworthy held talks with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on Thursday. He said the stalemate, now entering its fifth year, was hampering the fight against poverty.

"There are still people living in camps, there are still landmines being removed. There are still people not being allowed access across the border," Axworthy said.

The special envoy welcomed the recent declaration by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi that Ethiopia would accept "in principle" a border ruling to try and end the standoff. Ethiopia also called for dialogue with Eritrea.

However, Axworthy said the fear of renewed conflict between the two countries remains. "I think the international community saw the horrible consequences of the past war," he noted. "They know that there are still armies mobilised near the borders and they want to avoid any incident that would precipitate [conflict] and the best way to do it is to get a deal."

He also spoke of his "regret" that Eritrea had still refused to meet him a full year into his job which was established to help try and break the current stalemate.

"There is no doubt that having access to the leadership of Eritrea would have made this process easier," he said. "I may be flying with one wing but I am still flying."

Axworthy added of his role: "It's a tough, serious but important effort to try to bring two very serious opponents together and that's our job."