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An Eritrean poses near a tank abandoned during the 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia in Shambuko Town, Eritrea, December 23, 2005. The two countries have been in a "Cold War" scenario since the end of

An Eritrean poses near a tank abandoned during the 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia in Shambuko Town, Eritrea, December 23, 2005. The two countries have been in a “Cold War” scenario since the end of the conflict.ED HARRIS/REUTERS

Throughout the country’s 25-year history, Eritrea’s border with Ethiopia has been a hotly-disputed region.

Eritrea shares a 640-mile boundary with its Horn of Africa neighbor, from whom it only gained independence in 1991. The two countries fought a bloody two-year war over border boundaries between 1998 and 2000, since which bilateral relations have been characterized by a “no war, no peace” situation.

Now, Eritrea has blamed Ethiopia for clashes in the Tsorona region, about halfway along the border. The reported clashes have raised the specter of conflict in a region where tension is always high.

Until 1991, Eritrea was considered an autonomous region within Ethiopia. The latter’s decision to attempt to annex the former in 1961 sparked a 30-year independence war. Against a much-larger and better-equipped Ethiopian army, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front won the war and toppled Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam, with the assistance of Ethiopian rebels. Eritrea was recognized as an independent state by the international community in 1993 following a United Nations-backed referendum vote in favor of independence.

Why is the border a flashpoint?

A full-scale war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea in May 1998 and focused on the town of Badme, which both sides claimed belonged to them. Eritrea was found to have triggered the war by attacking Ethiopian troops around Badme, according to a 2005 ruling by the Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission, a body based in The Hague that was established to deal with the conflict’s fallout. Over the next two years, tens of thousands of soldiers were killed on both sides in a bloody battle that achieved very little in terms of concrete boundary changes.

The conflict ended in December 2000 after a peace accord known as the Algiers Agreement was signed by both parties. One condition of the agreement was the establishment of a boundary commission that in 2002 ruled that Badme was part of Eritrea. While both countries initially accepted the ruling, Ethiopia later said it was dissatisfied with the boundary and Badme continues to be occupied by Ethiopian troops. “Eritrea and Ethiopia have essentially been in a Cold War since the last war in 1998-2000,” says Ahmed Salim of political risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence.

Eritrean soldierAn Eritrean soldier looks through a spyhole on the frontline in Badme, Eritrea, March 2, 2000. Tens of thousands of people died in the two-year border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia.SS/CLH/REUTERS

What’s happened this time?

Following reports from residents living on the Ethiopian side of the border of hearing heavy gunfire, Eritrea accused Ethiopia on Sunday of infringing its territory. “The TPLF regime has… unleashed an attack against Eritrea on the Tsorona Central Front,” Eritrea’s Information Ministry said in a statement released overnight Sunday and reported by Reuters. The TPLF refers to the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, a member of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition.

Besides the claim from the Eritrean government in the capital Asmara, however, there is very little confirmed detail of what happened. Ethiopia’s Information Minister Getachew Reda told the BBC he was not aware of any fighting, and details coming out of Eritrea have been scant, with the country having a notoriously closed media.

What could the clashes lead to?

If significant fighting has occurred, it is unlikely that either side will want to escalate the conflict, according to Jason Mosley, a Horn of Africa expert and associate fellow at Chatham House. “It’s not in [Ethiopia’s] interest to precipitate the collapse of the Eritrean state. The Eritreans are certainly not in a position militarily to want to escalate to a full-scale conflict with Ethiopia,” says Mosley.

Eritrea is notorious for its conscription program. The compulsory national service program, which can often last for decades, continues to be indefinite, according to Amnesty International, despite the government in Asmara pledging in 2014 to limit national service to 18 months. The program is an oft-cited reason given by migrants and refugees fleeing the country—in 2015, Eritrea was the African country with the highest number of people applying for asylum in Europe. According to Mosley, “episodic reminders” of the “existential threat from Ethiopia” are useful to the Eritrean government in justifying its program. “Whatever the mechanics of what has or hasn’t happened… the Eritrean state will probably try to portray this to the fullest extent it can as evidence of a very aggressive Ethiopian posture,” says Mosley.

Are the clashes connected to Ethiopia’s Oromia crisis?

Since November 2015, Ethiopia has been dealing with large-scale protests among members of the Oromo ethnic group, the country’s majority ethnicity. These have resulted in a crackdown in which hundreds of people have been killed, according to Human Rights Watch. The Ethiopian government has said that Eritrea has backed the protests, which were initially sparked by plans to expand the capital Addis Ababa that would entail relocating Oromo farmer families.

Oromia mourningPeople mourn the death of a man accused of protesting and shot by Ethiopian forces in Yubdo Village in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, December 17, 2015. Ethiopia has blamed the Oromo protests partially on Eritrea.ZACHARIAS ABUBEKER/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

But according to Mosley, the Oromia crisis is an internal affair and has nothing to do with Ethiopia and Eritrea’s border disputes. “[The Oromo protests] is the reaction from a certain educated strata of Ethiopian society about being completely blocked out of negotiations around the development planning,” says Mosley. “It’s not an Eritrean plot, this is an Ethiopian ruling party failing.”

Review overview
  • wedi Toronto June 19, 2016

    Ethiopia is at peace and developing like never before without Eritrea and would take another 30 yrs of the useless gedli armed struggle among Eritreans to come to our sense and join Ethiopia. Forget the fake Ghedli, it has put poor Eritrea back into the stone age in 50 plus yrs. Eritrea’s war should be against the corrupt and criminal gedli tegadelti and not against peace and development loving Ethiopia.

    • an eye on the sky June 20, 2016

      wedi Toronto,Finaly you unmasked your yourself.You have no say on any Eritrean issues at all .Just seat tide and pray for whatever fake God you believe to -for Eritreans to be divided by Akele-,islamist radicals like yourself which day dreaming of yours -TPLF’S and dictator Isayas’s/pfdj . .

    • Samson June 20, 2016

      Very well said brother wedi Toronto. Keep telling the truth and ignore the moslem Arab dogs whose only agenda is to Islamize/Arabaze Eritrea and then declare their backward evil sharia law in Eritrea. Their savage moslem Arabs slave masters language of Arabic will be destroyed with DIA the servant of the bastard Arabs.

  • yemane June 19, 2016

    Eritrean muslem are very advanced thinker than all of the world muslem , as well thy are the back bone and the starter eritrean revolotion. Eritrea never had region problem , the muslem are very nationalist that protect the country problem., christian and muslem fought for one country, to have problem unthinkable , because eritrean mulem are very honest and moderate ., they are the funding fathers of Eritrea, they are the main source of the free dome road..

    • Samson June 20, 2016

      yemane, did you go to the same jihadists madrasses to study moslem lunatic in your jihadi struggle?
      Don’t waste your time to insult our intelligence by coming with fake names and garbage stories.
      You should still take off your Hijag and just stick to one pen-name like your old cousin ahmed salih.

      • AHMED SALEH !!! June 20, 2016

        My cousin Yemane has good heart to say that Eritreans and Ethiopians in general
        are one family willing to live in peace and harmony . And he also assured you as
        an Eritrean he has nothing except love to Ethiopians . He spoke the truth in concern
        Ethiopian – Eritrean people desire for lasting peace .
        But your corrupted mind and sinister mission of divide and rule has a price to pay in a long run . I feel sorry for the good people you try to speak on behalf their cause .
        You can defend Weyane at the expense of unfortunate majority similar scenario from
        blind defenders of HGDF and DERGHI regime era .
        ENJOY DIRTY POLITICS . A pig loves to wrestle in mud just for getting dirty as you
        invite to spoil people for dirty politics . You better search on HGDF -WEYANE places
        to find your alike hard headed men with provocative languages .
        Wrong turn ended at wrong forum , make U turn & go back where you belong .

  • yemane June 19, 2016

    no one is better than the other , Ethiopian and eritrean are cousin, Amara, tigray, oromo, gurage, we all are cousin , we can live in peace and harmony , leave alone dirty politics..I am Eritrean but loved all ethiopian ., Please identify the people and the regime political leader, all people are integrated can live without border.

    • Samson June 20, 2016

      meskin yemane, are part and parcel of the jihadist that are causing havoc and wreck in our poor region and across the wide world? However, your time is approaching for elimination and sending you back to your jihadi hell.

      • Samson June 20, 2016

        please add “you” and thank you.

  • Amanuel June 20, 2016

    While both regimes have little to no appetite to full fledged war, the tplf dominated regime will use it to demonstrate that it strong and can mount attacks if necessary and that the eplf regime ( that is anti it’s own people) can not prtect the ethiopian opposition based in Asmara.. The tyrannical regime in eritrea on the other hand wants to open skirmishes to distract eritreans attention away from it’s exposed crimes, justify enslavement of the youth ( considered biggest treat to its power), captivate it’s dwidling supporters emotions among others. But we will never rest until these gihilatat criminals faced justice. Death to gihilatat
    Victory to the innocent eritrean people.