Ethiopia, Eritrea leaders celebrate peace and new year at border where war raged

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki visited their troops stationed at Bure. (File/AFP)
Updated 12 September 2018
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Ethiopia, Eritrea leaders celebrate peace and new year at border where war raged

  • Eritrea reopened its embassy in Ethiopia in July, and Ethiopia reciprocated last week
  • Eritrea has agreed to open up its ports to its landlocked neighbor and last week announced plans to upgrade a road between them

NAIROBI: 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.
Fitsum Arega, Abiy's chief of staff, said: "Road links between Ethiopia and Eritrea will be operational, opening the gate for cross border movement of people and goods."
On Tuesday -- a national holiday to mark the 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 red-carpeted road to mark its reopening and crowds cheered and hugged each other.
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," Abiy's chief of staff added.
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 battle.
An 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.
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 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.
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," he 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 about 80,000 people. Despite being rebuilt, Zalambessa was rendered a ghost town by the closing of the border.
The reopening of crossings is about 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.
The route through Bure-Debay Sima leads to the port at Assab, while the road via Zalambessa-Serha reaches Massawa on the Red Sea coast.
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 from 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.


Trump becomes first foreign leader to meet Japan’s new emperor

Updated 27 May 2019
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Trump becomes first foreign leader to meet Japan’s new emperor

TOKYO: Donald Trump on Monday became the first foreign leader to meet with Japan’s newly enthroned Emperor Naruhito — an honor Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopes will help charm the US president when it comes to thorny trade talks.
The palace visit in the morning, followed by a royal banquet in the evening, was the main event in a feel-good trip that started Saturday and has seen Abe and Trump playing golf, eating out, watching sumo and generally enjoying an all-Japanese weekend.
Dining with Abe and their wives at a typical Tokyo grill restaurant on Sunday, Trump said he “had a great time” and was looking forward to meeting Naruhito, who took the Chrysanthemum Throne only three weeks ago, after his father stepped down in the first abdication in two centuries.
“Tomorrow is really the main event — a very important event in the history of Japan. It’s over 200 years since something like this has happened. So it’s a great honor to be representing the United States,” Trump said.
After calling on Naruhito in the morning, Trump and his avowed close friend Abe will meet for summit talks and have lunch, before holding a press conference.
On Sunday, they grinned for a selfie and praised each other’s golf game. Before the dinner, Abe also accompanied Trump to a sumo tournament where the US president presented a gigantic trophy, brought from the United States, to the champion wrestler.
Abe hopes those good vibes will spread into talks on trade, military ties, the stumbling efforts to rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and a growing superpower rivalry between Washington and Beijing.
Within an hour of touching down in Tokyo, Trump railed against what he sees as a trade imbalance between the world’s top and third-largest economies and vowed to make the relationship “a little bit more fair.”
But on Sunday, Trump struck a softer note, saying that “much” of that deal would wait until Abe faces upper house elections likely in July — as rumors swirl that the popular prime minister will combine that vote with a snap general election.
With his trade war against China getting bogged down, Trump won’t want to rock the boat for his closest Asian ally.
Top Japanese and American trade negotiators spent more than two hours locked in talks on Saturday night but failed to achieve a breakthrough, although the Japanese side said there was more “understanding” between the two sides.

Loving Chairman Kim
On North Korea, Trump appeared to undercut his own national security adviser, the hawkish John Bolton, by downplaying two recent short-range missile tests by Kim which raised tensions in the region.
“North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me,” Trump tweeted.
“I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me.”
Before Trump landed in Tokyo, Bolton had told reporters there was “no doubt” that the launches contravened UN Security Council resolutions, the first time a senior US administration official has said this.
The issue is bound to come up as the leaders meet families of people abducted by North Korea during the Cold War era to train Pyongyang’s spies, an emotive issue in Japan that Abe has pressed Trump to raise in talks with Kim.
The nationalist Abe himself has frequently offered to meet Kim to solve the “abductee problem,” as it is known in Japan.
On Tuesday, Trump is expected to address troops at a US base in Japan, highlighting the military alliance between the two allies.
His visit there will underline another big US priority — arms sales to Japan, which is considering revamping its air force with advanced US F-35 warplanes.