As War Eases, Famine Looms in Ethiopia, Eritrea

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As their brief and bloody war draws to a close, millions of Ethiopians and Eritreans face starvation in a looming famine — but foreign donors are going to take a hard look at each country's books before doling out more cash. Ethiopia declared victory Thursday as Eritrea agreed to withdraw its forces from Ethiopian territory it seized during their first border war in 1998. The announcement follows the military defeat of the Eritreans on two fronts in an invasion that has lasted just over a week. "Although there are still a number of issues on which fighting could continue, the international community is relieved that the conflict doesn't appear to be going further than Ethiopia's reclaiming the border areas lost in 1998," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell. "It had been feared that the Ethiopians might push to seize one of Eritrea's Red Sea ports."

The Ethiopians insist their objective has been simply to recover the lands lost two years ago, and believe their military success will force Eritrea to accept Addis Ababa's terms at the negotiating table. But the defeat will have shaken the stability of Eritrea's government, and that will suit Ethiopia's President Meles Zenawi, who would certainly like to see his hostile Eritrean counterpart, Isias Afwerki, replaced by a more pliant leader.

The international community won't be particularly impressed by Ethiopia's "victory," however. "The conflict was seen by most countries at the U.N. as an irresponsible gamble that cost both countries thousands of lives and considerable resources at a time when they're on the verge of a massive famine," says Dowell. "They desperately need help from the international community, but it's difficult to ask for money when you're spending so much of your budget on arms. Donors were annoyed at how much weaponry both countries had stored up at a time when they were economically hardly able to sustain their population." Although the international community is unlikely to sit back and watch people starve simply because of their government's militarism, the next time foreign donors offer either country money for famine relief they may be tempted to demand to see receipts.