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Eritrea’s arms seem to have been folded in a sulk for a long time now. The Red Sea state has, for some, taken on the black sheep role in the Horn of Africa family. But President Isaias Afewerki is looking eager to get off the naughty step.
His opponents say he was put there for good reason. Eritrea became increasingly isolated in the region after a 1998 – 2000 border war with neighbouring – and much bigger – Ethiopia.
Things have been tense between the two ever since – partly fueled by the fact that Eritrea only fully ceded from Ethiopia in 1993 after rebels led by Isaias and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi ousted a communist regime.
Eritrea has also fallen out with another neighbour, Djibouti. The two countries have been kicking each other in small but regular border clashes since 2008.
As Somalia goes up in flames again , fingers are being pointed at Eritrea for its alleged role in fuelling the conflict. East African regional body IGAD and the continent-wide African Union have both called for sanctions on Eritrea – including a no-fly zone and blockade of its ports – for allegedly supplying arms and equipment to Al Shabaab and other militant Islamist insurgents fighting Somalia’s interim government.The accusations have been around for years, and have surfaced in U.N. reports on breaches of a weapons embargo for Somalia. Asmara says its arch-enemy Ethiopia is driving the accusations, helped by CIA agents in the region, and denies it has given any material aid despite its antipathy towards President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s government.Asmara says the government, formed in January during a U.N.-brokered process in Djibouti, is an illegitimate administration imposed by foreign powers. It challenges its critics to produce hard evidence, and says the accusations are particularly hypocritical given Ethiopia’s recent armed intervention in Somalia.Analysts say the spat plays into the wider, unfinished conflict in the region between Ethiopia and Eritrea. They fought a border war between 1998-2000 – just a few years after Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia – and their armies still face each other, while the governments spit enmity between them. So who is right? How can the rest of the world know the truth? What should Eritrea and Ethiopia both do to further peace in Somalia?
How times change. Somalia’s new Islamist president has been feted in Ethiopia, whose army drove him from power two years ago – with Washington’s backing – when he headed a sharia courts movement.
Sheikh Sharif Ahmed was greeted with a standing ovation from African Union leaders at a summit in Ethiopia, which pulled the last of its troops out of Somalia last month, leaving the government in control of little beyond parts of Mogadishu. The hardline Islamist al Shabaab militia control much of the rest of southern Somalia.