January 29, 2009 / 9:23 AM / 10 years ago

Djibouti will resist war with Eritrea: president

DJIBOUTI (Reuters) - Djibouti will not be pushed into war with its Horn of Africa neighbour Eritrea and will exhaust all legal means to settle a long-running border row, the Djibouti president said in an interview.

The two nations, on a crucial shipping lane linking Europe to Asia, clashed in June after Djibouti accused Eritrea of moving troops across the border. Eritrea denies the accusations. A dozen Djiboutian soldiers were killed in the fighting.

The United Nations’ Security Council passed a resolution on January 14 giving Eritrea five weeks to withdraw its forces from the Red Sea coastal area of Ras Doumeira and Doumeira Island — a demand quickly rejected by Asmara.

“They want to lure us into war. But we will not do it. We will exhaust all the legal solutions,” Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh, 61, told Reuters in an interview at the colonial-era presidential palace on Wednesday.

Djibouti hosts France’s largest military base in Africa and also a major U.S. base. The country’s modern port is used by foreign navies patrolling the busy shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia to fight piracy.

The former French colony of some 800,000 people, which also borders Somalia, is the main route to the sea for Ethiopia — Eritrea’s arch enemy and Washington’s chief regional ally.

Guelleh said Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki would most likely try and block a U.N. team from visiting the disputed area to compile a report for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon once the five-week deadline was up.

“Because what interests him is Ethiopia. It’s not working. He has problems with Ethiopia, but not us. Why is he making us the hostages?” said Guelleh.

He said Eritrea was now trying to court Iran by sending ministerial delegations to the Islamic Republic, perhaps with a view to sending Washington a warning message.

“But they are not listening. He’s going to lose there as well. You don’t win by threatening people,” said Guelleh.

Critics say Eritrea has isolated itself, is a danger to security in the Horn of Africa and is acting as a destabilising force in both Ethiopia and Somalia.

But Asmara says it has long been the victim of pro-Ethiopian prejudice and unfair meddling by the international community, particularly in its border dispute with Addis Ababa.

Djibouti has been Ethiopia’s main gateway for imports and exports since it lost the ports of Assab and Masawa when Eritrea won its independence in the early 1990s after a 30-year war.

The U.N. Security Council demanded in its resolution earlier this month that Eritrea acknowledge its border dispute with Djibouti and participate in diplomatic efforts to resolve it.

Asmara accuses Security Council members of ignoring what it called breaches of international law by Ethiopia, with which it fought a 1998-2000 border war that killed 70,000 people.

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