New Delhi, Dec. 24: As the clock ticked past a Friday midnight deadline set by the United Nations Security Council for Ethiopia and Eritrea to pull back troops from attacking positions, 1,200 Indian soldiers kept the peace through the cold desert night ' as they have every night for two years now ' between the two warring Horn of Africa nations.
Bang in the middle of the two armies that have amassed tanks and troops are Indian soldiers who are monitoring two of three sectors along the disputed 1,000-km border between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
The Indbatt ' Indian Battalion Group ' is commanded by Col Anand Singh Rawat. The commander of the UN forces in Ethiopia and Eritrea is also an Indian ' Maj. Gen. Rajender Singh. So is the military adviser to the UN Secretary General, Lt Gen. Randhir Kumar Mehta, who last week visited the Horn of Africa nations to review military preparedness after Eritrea ordered out western UN workers.
The deadline is now past and though Ethiopia said it was beginning a pullback of troops from the temporary security zone along the border, Eritrea has been less than positive. It says the UN has done little with its claim on the disputed border town of Badne that is now in Ethiopia.
“The situation is tense and potentially volatile,” said a spokesperson for the United Nations Mission for Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) over telephone. “UN troops on the border are monitoring the situation despite restrictions.”
Since the UNMEE’s western workers were ordered out by Eritrea, the UN forces have been operating in a very hostile environment with their lives at risk. Following the Eritrean order, American, European, Canadian and Russian workers were evacuated. A nervous UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, has specially requested India and Jordan not to pull out its troops.
Eritrean restrictions on movement by UN forces have forced the Indian troops to withdraw from several frontier outposts and cut down sorties by helicopter at night. This has meant that the Indian peace enforcers are not able to make the frontier transparent and keep a watch on all manoeuvres by the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies.
More than half the UN forces in the disputed Eritrea-Ethiopia border are Indians. A Jordanian Battalion (Jorbatt) monitors the western sector and the Indbatt the central and eastern sectors.
Africa’s little wars demand the maximum war zone deployment of Indian soldiers outside Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast but get little public attention within the country till an emergency erupts. Two years ago, Indian troops were withdrawn from Sierra Leone after they were freed from hostage-takers and this June an Indian soldier was killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The brief for the Indian soldiers on the Ethiopia-Eritrea border is to monitor the implementation of a ceasefire since the 1998-2000 war that took a toll of an estimated one lakh lives, de-mine the frontier and report to the UN headquarters.
The zone includes the Bada region, one of the hottest places on earth in summers where temperatures can rise to 60 degrees centigrade. The border cuts through desert sands, swamps, steep hills and is cut by rivers.