After 20 years Ethiopia, Eritrea reopen crossings

Leaders reopen border crossings in region that saw some of the fiercest fighting during 1998-2000 war.

ADDIS ABABA - Two land border crossings between Ethiopia and Eritrea were reopened Tuesday for the first time in 20 years, crowning a rapid reconciliation between the former bitter enemies.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki attended ceremonies at the eastern and western ends of the border, Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebre Meskel said on Twitter.

The eastern border post between Bure in Ethiopia and Debay Sima in Eritrea, and the western border post between Zalambessa and Serha, were among those closed in 1998 as the neighbouring Horn of Africa nations cut diplomatic ties at the outbreak of a short but bloody two-year frontier fight.

The war that broke out in 1998 over the border and other issues killed an estimated 80,000 people before fighting ended in 2000 in a contested peace deal. Some of the fiercest fighting of the war took place in the Bure region.

The ensuing cold war stymied development and trade, and undermined regional security, but in a surprise move earlier this year, Abiy began peace overtures, which were welcomed by Eritrea.

Key to this was Abiy's acceptance in June of a UN-backed court ruling in 2002 demarcating the contested border and handing back some occupied territory to Eritrea, including the disputed town of Badme.

On Tuesday -- a national holiday to mark Ethiopian New Year -- Abiy and Isaias, dressed in military fatigues, paid a joint visit to the disputed eastern border zone that both countries have claimed. Soldiers lined the road to mark its reopening.

"We heralded the new year by demolishing the trenches along our border," Abiy told reporters.

"As of today, Ethiopia's defence forces (along the border with Eritrea) will be gathered to camps and ease tension that was often extreme. The same will be done from the Eritrean side."

Ethiopia follows a calendar similar to the ancient Julian one - which started disappearing from the West in the 16th century - meaning the country entered its year 2011 on Tuesday.

Abiy's chief of staff, Fitsum Arega, said the visit was, "to celebrate the New Year with members of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Defence Forces following the full normalisation of the relations between the two countries."

At Zalambessa, soldiers manning the crossing on a rough road that cuts through the shared no man's land together dismantled piles of sandbags while a red carpet was rolled over the potholes and flags were raised for the border's ceremonial reopening.

A live broadcast on Ethiopian state television showed a large cheering crowd celebrating the reopening of the road with soldiers and civilians from both countries dancing together and greeting one another.

"This is the happiest day of my life," Ruta Haddis, an Eritrean from the town of Senafe just across the frontier, told reporters. "I never thought this would take place in my lifetime."

Symbolism and trade

Neither leader spoke at the event which was instead addressed by Debretsion Gebremichael, president of the Tigray region on the Ethiopian side of the border.

"By partnering in place of disintegration, by helping each other at the expense of sabotaging each other, we can move forward," Gebremichael said.

"The bell for peace and development has rung waiting for us to be a model of peace, brotherhood and partnership in the coming years."

The once-bustling commercial town on what was the main highway between Addis Ababa and Asmara was all but levelled during the 1998-2000 border war, that killed around 80,000 people. Despite being rebuilt, Zalambessa was rendered a ghost town by the closing of the border.

The reopening of border posts is more than symbolism.

Booming but landlocked Ethiopia is eager to secure access to Eritrea's Red Sea coast for its imports and exports, while Eritrea's stunted economy will benefit from increasing regional commerce.

Ethiopia, a rising economic power with 100 million people, had been almost entirely dependent on tiny neighbour Djibouti for access to the Red Sea since 1998.

The route through Bure-Debay Sima leads to the port at Assab while the road via Zalambessa-Serha reaches Massawa.

Tuesday's ceremonies were just the latest steps in a rapid diplomatic thaw that has seen Ethiopia and Eritrea restore air links, telephone lines and trade routes, and re-establish diplomatic missions.

Once a province of Ethiopia, Eritrea fought a long independence war, eventually seceding in 1993, but five years later conflict broke out again.

Hardliners on both sides -- including Isaias, Eritrea's first and only president -- ensured that neither side backed down over the border dispute.

Each nation has supported the other's rebels and the long cold war periodically erupted in fighting.

Isaias used the threat of attacks by its much larger southern neighbour to institute a form of perpetual national service that the UN has compared to slavery. Repression at home drove Eritreans to flee, many of them making the long and perilous journey to Europe.

But since coming to power in April, Abiy has begun implementing a breakneck reform programme aimed at defusing anti-government protests and repairing relations with neighbours, chief among them Eritrea.