By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA, March 16 (Reuters) – Eritrea said on Friday an attack by Ethiopian forces inside its territory was provocative but would not “entrap” it, signalling reluctance to be sucked back into armed conflict with its bitter foe.
Ethiopia said on Thursday its troops raided three military bases in the neighbouring Red Sea state which it said were used by Ethiopian rebels.
The assaults were the first on Eritrean soil that Addis Ababa has admitted to since the end of a 1998-2000 war that killed 70,000 people. Eritrea claims there have been others.
“The objective of the attack … is to divert attention from the central issue of the regime’s flagrant violation of international law and illegal occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories,” Eritrea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“Eritrea … will not be entrapped by such deceitful ploys that are aimed at derailing and eclipsing the underlying fundamental issues.”
A vicious row over the position of Eritrea and Ethiopia’s shared border was not resolved at the end of the war.
The Hague-based Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission ruled in 2002 that the border village of Badme belonged to Eritrea.
However, the village remains in Ethiopia and Eritrea blames the international community, and the United Nations in particular, for not forcing Ethiopia to accept the border.
Analysts say Asmara, unable to match Ethiopia militarily, has launched a proxy war in lawless Somalia to weaken its neighbour. President Isaias Afewerki’s government has been slapped with sanctions for links with Somalia’s al Shabaab rebels.
“I suspect there is little fallout to expect from the raid – unless Eritrea chooses to unleash one of its proxies, perhaps in Somalia,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Centre at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.
“Of course, if that happens, it would give the lie to Asmara’s hitherto denials of linkages with groups like al-Shabaab.”
Ethiopian ground forces targeted three locations around 16 km (10 miles) inside southeastern Eritrea.
Shimeles Kemal, Ethiopia’s government spokesman, said Eritrea has used the bases to train an Ethiopian rebel group that Addis Ababa says killed five foreign tourists and kidnapped two others in Ethiopia’s remote Afar region in January.
“The Eritrean defence force is not in a position to launch an attack against Ethiopia and were they try to do so, the results would be disastrous,” he told journalists on Thursday.
Eritrea denies any involvement.
“As we underlined at the time, the recent deplorable killing and abduction of tourists has also been misconstrued by the … (Ethiopian) regime and its backers as a ‘blessing in disguise’ to rationalise its unlawful acts,” its foreign ministry said.
A Western diplomat in Addis Ababa told Reuters the neighbours — two of the poorest countries in the world — are unlikely to harbour intentions for an all-out war, but both would be happy to see the other’s government unfold.
“Ethiopia will take whatever means necessary to topple the regime in Asmara, but a full-scale war is unthinkable. I believe these type of incidents will happen again,” he said.
(Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by James Macharia and Richard Meares)