The United Nations reluctantly withdrew American and other peacekeeping staff from Eritrea on Thursday and said it faced an unprecedented...

Share story

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The United Nations reluctantly withdrew American and other peacekeeping staff from Eritrea on Thursday and said it faced an unprecedented crisis in its monitoring of the country’s fragile peace with Ethiopia.

Amid fears of a new Horn of Africa war, the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday bowed to Eritrean demands that all Americans, Canadians and Europeans — about 180 of a force of about 3,300 — leave the U.N.’s Eritrea-Ethiopia peacekeeping mission.

But the council and Secretary-General Kofi Annan made clear that the decision to redeploy the military observers and civilian staff to the Ethiopian capital was just a first step.

Both promised a speedy review of the entire U.N. peacekeeping operation — and one option almost certainly will be to end it and send all members home.

“The situation on the ground is that it is totally unacceptable,” said Undersecretary-General Jean-Marie Guehenno, the top peacekeeping official. “We don’t want to have the authorities of Eritrea tell us which nationalities we are going to relocate.”

The United Nations established the mission after a 2 ½-year border war between the neighbors. A December 2000 peace agreement provided for an independent commission to rule on the position of the disputed 621-mile border, while U.N. troops patrolled a 15-mile buffer zone between the two countries.

Ethiopia has refused to implement the international commission’s April 2002 ruling, which awarded the key town of Badme to Eritrea.

In response, Eritrea has accused the international community of shirking its responsibility to ensure the ruling is obeyed. Since October, it has banned U.N. helicopter flights and other vehicle movement at night on its side of the buffer zone.

On Dec. 6, Eritrea gave the force 10 days to pull out peacekeepers from North America and Europe, including Russia. It gave no reason, but the move came amid mounting concern that both sides were massing troops near the buffer zone as a prelude to a new war.

The first 87 people expelled arrived in Addis Ababa from Asmara on three flights Thursday. All declined to speak to reporters.

The United Nations also relocated four helicopters and their crew of about a dozen Ukrainians to Addis Ababa.

Two more staff members will leave Asmara today. The balance of about 80 staff members affected by the expulsion order are either on holiday or were about to finish their tour of duty, Guehenno said.

“We are at a critical time. Never has there been such a great crisis for the mission,” he said. “The unacceptable actions and restrictions on [the U.N. mission], if they are sustained will have implications for the future.”

Guehenno said Eritrean authorities refused to meet with him during his visit, which ends today. The mission will present a report to the Security Council by Jan. 2 on what actions it can take in response to Eritrea’s restrictions and expulsion order, he said.

Associated Press reporter Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report.