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Eritrea: Ethiopia attacked us over border dispute

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TOM ODULA | March 16, 2012 10:29 PM EST | AP

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NAIROBI, Kenya — The Eritrean government said Friday that an attack on its military outposts by neighboring Ethiopia was carried out with the help of the U.S. and meant to divert attention from a decade-old border dispute between the two countries.

Ethiopia said Thursday it carried out a ground assault on the outposts because Eritrea was training "subversive groups" that carried out attacks inside Ethiopia.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Ethiopia and Eritrea "to exercise maximum restraint," resolve their differences through peaceful means, and avoid any action that could lead to an escalation of tensions, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said. He also urged both sides to respect each other's territorial integrity.

Eritrea's Foreign Ministry quoted the Ethiopian government as saying its armed forces on Thursday "penetrated 18 kilometers (11 miles) inside sovereign Eritrean territory to carry out an attack on Eritrean army outposts."

The ministry statement gave no other details about the military operation and neither government has said anything about damage or casualties.

Relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia have been consistently strained since Eritrea gained its independence from the Addis Ababa government in 1993 following a 30-year guerrilla war. The border between the countries was never officially demarcated, which led to a 2 1/2-year war that ended in 2000.

Under the cease-fire agreement that ended the fighting, both sides agreed to allow an international boundary commission rule on the disputed border. The commission ruling in April 2002 awarded the key town of Badme to Eritrea – but Ethiopia has refused to hand over any territory.

Eritrean Foreign Affairs Minister Osman Saleh said "it is patently clear that the Ethiopian regime could not have unleashed such a flagrant act of aggression with such audacity without the protection and succor of the United States in the Security Council."

Eritrea routinely accuses the United States of overlooking abuses by Ethiopia, a key U.S. ally in the region in its war against terror.

"The government of Eritrea, urges for the umpteenth time, the U.N. Security Council to shoulder legal and moral responsibilities and to take appropriate measures to rectify acts of aggression against Eritrea's sovereign territories and to ensure justice and the respect of the rule of law," Saleh said.

In New York, a U.S. official said "The United States had no foreknowledge of the Ethiopian action. The Eritrean accusation is totally false," he aid, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make a public statement.

Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, the current council president, said he received a phone call Thursday from Ethiopia's U.N. ambassador informing the council about the military action and had circulated a letter from Eritrea's U.N. ambassador to council members on Friday.

"But there hasn't been any discussion among the 15 members of the Security Council on this issue yet," he said.

Osman said such attacks have been going on for the last 10 years and Thursday's assault was meant to divert attention to the fact that Ethiopia occupies Eritrean territory.

"The objective of the attack, and its audacious publicity, is to divert attention from the central issue of the regime's flagrant violation of international law and illegal occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories as well as from its myriad internal problems," Osman said.

Ethiopia said Thursday's attack was in retaliation to attacks by groups which have been sponsored by the Eritrean government and that European tourists were killed in one of the most recent attacks.

Militants attacked European tourists from five nations traveling in Ethiopia's arid north in January. Five tourists were killed and two were kidnapped. The two kidnapped German tourists have since been released.

Ethiopia blamed gunmen from Eritrea for the attack.

Osman described the killings of the Europeans as deplorable but said Ethiopia is using it as an excuse to launch attacks.

The border war between the two countries killed about 80,000 people. Recent signs have pointed to growing tension in the region.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told the country's parliament last April that his government would actively support Eritrean opposition groups to help topple that country's regime. Ethiopia also blamed Eritrea for scheming bomb attacks on several targets in Addis Ababa during an African Union summit in January 2011.

Eritrea doesn't receive foreign aid and is sanctioned by the U.N. because of human rights violations. U.N. reports have indicated that Eritrea has supported the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab. Eritrea has denied those accusations.

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Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations.