Africa, Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

YEMEN-ERITREA: Hanish Islands Conflict Ends, Questions Remain

John Roberts

LONDON, Aug 29 1996 (IPS) - There were indications this week of at least a temporary resolution to the conflict between Yemen and Eritrea over the Hanish islands, waterless and unpopulated outposts some 100 nautical miles inside the southern entrance to the Red Sea.

In New York, U.N spokeswoman Sylvana Foa said as of Wednesday, Eritrea had withdrawn from the Lesser Hanish, thus ending the crisis triggered by occupation of that disputed territory.

U.N envoy Lansana Kouyate said he was satisfied the crisis had been resolved. U.N. officials indicated Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Secretary General, will shortly issue a report on the issue.

For their part, Yemeni officials in New York appeared satisfied that “Eritrean aggression” had ended.

But questions remain over the reason for the intensity of the dispute between the two impoverished nations, one of which — Eritrea — received its independence relatively recently.

All this year, France has been working to try to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the dispute. These efforts received fresh impetus with the reported occupation of the island of Lesser Hanish (Hanish as-Saghir, in Arabic) by Eritrean forces in early August. Eritrean troops had landed on the main island, Greater Hanish (Hanish al-Kabir), in November last year.

Martin Pratt of the International Boundaries Research Unit (IBRU) at Britain’s Durham University, which has been monitoring the dispute, says there have been reports that oil is at the root of the dispute.

However, “while both have oil concessions that overlap, they both overlap right down the middle of Greater Hanish. So neither of their oil concessions seems to take into account their claimed sovereignty over Greater Hanish.”

No oil has actually been found in the southern waters of the Red Sea. Egypt has found some in the far north. Yemen struck oil a decade ago a considerable distance inland from its Red Sea coast.

No-one is exactly sure what happened on the occupied island. A series of reports, originating with diplomatic sources on both sides, indicated that the small force of Eritrean troops, probably numbering less than 50, landed on Lesser Hanish on Aug. 10. Despite promises to withdraw, they were still there on Aug. 21.

“The islands are waterless and unpopulated,” says Pratt, “so there are no independent eye witness accounts to verify the various claims and counter claims.”

The Yemen Government charged Eritrea with conducting illegal military activities. On Aug. 18, the Yemeni Vice President, Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi said that while Yemen had so far engaged in political efforts to resolve the dispute, “we reserve the right to defend the sovereignty of the country and our land.”

“There’s been a lot of attempts at mediation from a variety of national and international bodies,” notes Pratt. These include Ethiopia and Egypt, the Organisation for African Unity, the Arab League and the United Nations. Only the French effort succeeded.

France first offered to mediate in the dispute on Jan. 6. With U.N approval, former Secretary General of the French Foreign Ministry, Frances Gutman persuaded the two countries to agree a Declaration of Principles on May 21. It provided for a peaceful settlement and international arbitration.

It was understood that neither side would engage in military activities. Earlier this month, UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali sent letters to Sanaa and Asmara, the two capitals involved, to urge restraint.

UN Under-Secretary General Ismet Kittani held a series of meetings with representatives of both countries — and of France — from August 12-14, while Boutros-Ghali declared his specific support for Gutman’s efforts.

It is still not clear why Eritrea took military action. There were suggestions that its government was less than satisfied with French diplomacy.

The dispute prompted concern in the region. Arab press reports focussed on the fact that both Eritrea and Yemen are amongst the world’s poorest countries. They should be concentrating on improving their standard of living and on peaceful co-existence with their neighbours.

Ironically, when Eritrea was fighting for its independence from Ethiopia, it secured considerable military, political and financial help from Arab states, including Yemen. The Arab League would normally have been expected to embrace Eritrea as a potential member, opening the way for the Red Sea country to secure at least some development aid in an era of generally declining aid availability. This now seems unlikely.

The origin of the dispute dates back to colonial times. Both Italy and Britain were present in the Red Sea. Italians maintained a lighthouse on the group. Some analysts have taken this to indicate a possible link with Eritrea, which was governed by Italy in colonial times.

But international agreements in 1938 and 1962 explicitly acknowledged that sovereignty over the Greater and Lesser Hanish islands was disputed. The neighbouring territory of Zuqar has, for many decades, been under effective Yemeni control.

There seems to be no Eritrean claim on this island, although, in geographical terms, it is part of the same small archipelago and the Hanish islands — indeed, Lesser Hanish is closer to Zuqar than it is to Greater Hanish.

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