Ethiopia, Eritrea reopen border points for 1st time in 20 years

Africa
By Reuters
Ethiopia's PM Dr Abiy Ahmed (right) and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki [FANA]
Photo: FANA
Photo: FANA
Photo credit: FANA
Photo credit: FANA
Photo credit: FANA
Photo credit: FANA
Photo credit: FANA
Photo credit: FANA

ADDIS ABABA - The leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea re-opened crossing points on their shared border for the first time in 20 years on Tuesday, cementing a stunning reconciliation and giving Addis Ababa a direct route to its former foe’s Red Sea ports. 

Thousands of people from both countries watched one ceremony in Zalambessa, an Ethiopian border town that was reduced to rubble soon after hostilities between the neighbours broke out in 1998.

Soldiers and civilians waving Ethiopian and Eritrean flags lined the road as Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki opened the frontier in a ceremony broadcast live on Ethiopian state TV.

“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.”

The war over their border and other issues killed an estimated 80,000 people before the fighting ended in 2000 in a contested peace deal.

Tensions burned on over the position of the frontier - until Abiy offered to end the military standoff this year as part of a package of reforms that have reshaped the political landscape in the Horn of Africa and beyond.

The two leaders also opened another frontier crossing at Bure, Eritrea’s Information Minister Yemane Meskel said in a tweet. 

The Debay Sima - Bure crossing leads to the port of Assab in Eritrea’s east, while its Massawa port is directly north of the Serha - Zalambessa connection.

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

ETHIOPIAN NEW YEAR

Pictures posted online by Abiy’s chief of staff showed the leaders talking and walking side by side in Bure - Abiy in camouflaged military fatigues and Isaias wearing sandals and a safari suit. 

The Bure region saw some of the fiercest battles during the 1998-2000 war.

The Eritrean and Ethiopian leaders have moved swiftly to end two decades of hostility since signing a breakthrough agreement in Asmara on July 9 to restore ties.

Eritrea reopened its embassy in Ethiopia in July, and Ethiopia reciprocated last week and the two countries have resumed flights.

The two leaders also celebrated Ethiopian New Year together at the border with their troops on Tuesday, Abiy’s Chief of Staff, Fitsum Arega, said.

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