February 02, 2021 (GMN) - Age-old territorial claims are threatening to embroil Ethiopia and Sudan into armed conflict, as bickering over disputed strips of farmland in recent weeks has boiled over into the most serious escalation of border tensions in years.
The uptick in skirmishes initially involving militias from the two countries saw the neighbors’ national armies intervene and by mid-December, both countries had massed soldiers along the frontier in the al-Fashaga region.
Last month, Sudan closed its airspace over the region alleging that an Ethiopian fighter jet had infiltrated Sudanese airspace.
Al-Fashaga, where the contested farmlands at the heart of the dispute lie, runs about 100 square miles (259 square kilometers) along the joint border of Ethiopia’s northwestern frontier and eastern Sudan.
For decades, farmers from both countries have harvested crops with little care for border markings in the area amid sporadic flare-ups.
Attempts to properly demarcate the border date back to a treaty signed in 1902 between then British-ruled Sudan and Ethiopia. But the ambiguity along certain border points left the issue unresolved and demarcation has remained a sticking point between the two countries, particularly since Sudan gained independence in 1955.
The flashpoint of the recent bickering was a December 15 ambush, reportedly carried out in the area by Ethiopian militia backed by Ethiopian soldiers.
The attack is said to have killed several Sudanese military officers, and it provoked a rare condemnation from Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who said on Twitter Sudan’s forces would be prepared to “repel” military aggression.
With his country already engulfed in a brutal war in its northern Tigray region, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed responded with a reconciliatory call for calm. “Such incidents will not break the bond b/n our two countries as we always use dialogue to resolve issues,” he said in a tweet.
But Sudan struck back, mobilizing soldiers towards contested areas and announcing that it had retaken them by New Year’s Day.
“Our military is engaged elsewhere, they took advantage of that,” Ethiopian military chief General Birhanu Jula said of Sudan’s recent military maneuvers.
“This should have been solved amicably. Sudan needs to choose dialogue, as there are third party actors who want to see our countries divided,” he added, strongly hinting at Egypt, with whom Ethiopia is engaged in a diplomatic spat over the construction of a massive hydroelectric power dam on the Blue Nile River.
Source: Al Jazeera