ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Two weeks after Ethiopia made the surprise announcement it was ready to accept a nearly 20-year-old peace deal with Eritrea, the reclusive country’s leader said Wednesday it would send a delegation to discuss the matter to Addis Ababa.
First a tweet from a senior Eritrean diplomat in Japan and then a speech by President Isaias Afwerki announced a delegation was going to be sent to “map out future plans” in response to “positive messages” from Ethiopia.
The tweet by Ambassador Estifanos Afeworki spoke of “constructive engagement with Ethiopia.”
The move brings a glimmer of hope to solve one of the bloodiest and most intractable conflicts in the Horn of Africa between two countries closely bound by ties of language, religion and ethnicity.
Eritrea, a mountainous coastal country of just 5 million, was once a province of Ethiopia. However, after it helped overthrow the communist-led government together with Ethiopian rebels in 1991, it voted for its independence in 1993.
Tensions flared with its former Ethiopian allies over the border demarcation, turning into a full-scale warr in 1998 over the remote town of Badme. The fighting raged for two years and claimed at least 70,000 lives in brutal, trench warfare-style fighting.
A peace accord brokered in Algiers in 2000 left the fate of Badme and other regions to an international arbitration council that then decided in favor of Eritrea. Ethiopia refused to implement the decision and the two countries have remained at war since, supporting rival rebel groups and occasionally shelling each other, killing hundreds.
On June 5, Ethiopia’s young new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, broke with decades of policy and said he would recognize the deal, as part of string of radical domestic reforms that have stunned the country.
There have been protests in Badme itself, where people told reporters that they would refuse to leave and that the decision made a mockery of the thousands who had died in the fighting.
The political party for that region, which is part of the governing coalition, also expressed its opposition to the decision — a rare split for Ethiopia where the politics has long had an authoritarian cast.
In a question-and-answer session before parliament on Monday, Abiy came under criticism for the move and the former lieutenant colonel reminded parliamentarians that he was part of the army that drove the Eritreans out of Badme.
“I was standing in that village when we put up flag and I cried. Many of my friends who fought in that war, we had to bury,” he said. “I paid the price.”
While acknowledging the massive losses in the war he said it was time to end it and bring jobs and prosperity to the people living along that border.