BY AL ARABIYA
Qatar’s alleged support of terrorist organizations, which has already frayed its relation with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf states, is also destabilizing East Africa.
Qatar’s withdrawal of its peacekeepers on June 14 from the Djibouti-Eritrea border was a form of punishment to the disputing countries which supported the quartet of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, according to a senior researcher at a US Department of Defense think tank.
“Punishing Djibouti and Eritrea for breaking relations with Qatar was one reason for the withdraw of Qatari peacekeepers,” said Joseph Siegle, director of research for DOD funded African Center for Strategic Studies.
Qatar responded almost immediately after the two embattled countries announced support and removed nearly 500 troops it had kept since 2010 in a border.
Eritrea, which is larger and better armed than Djibouti, quickly moved into the disputed territories of Dumeira mountain and Dumeira Island.
Although no shots were fired, tensions have increased dramatically in the area. In June 2008, the two countries fought a brief war that claimed roughly 200 dead and wounded. Qatari peacekeepers arrived in 2010 as part of a Doha led mediation process.
In a renewed round of open conflict, the odds would heavily favor Eritrea. Eritrea has a veteran military as well as larger numbers of armored fighting vehicles and combat aircraft.
“The military and the state apparatus are full of veterans of previous conflicts,” Siegle said. “In fact, the state as an institution is more focused on conflict than Djibouti.”
He said the tense situation is yet another unhappy consequence of Qatari policies that have provoked a range of harsh responses from its neighbors. The persistent efforts by its Gulf neighbors to punish and isolate it since June have strained its resources so that the removal of peacekeepers is as much an act of redeployment as retribution.
“I think it’s a combination of the reason that is most strategic and Qatar has a limited number of forces and it is dealing with the more threatening situation given the current embargo,” Siegel said.
“It has bigger strategic interests than the border dispute between Djibouti and Eritrea. I think punishing Djibouti for breaking relations with Qatar was a factor but, it was secondary in the context of the current crisis. Qatar has other ways of punishing Djibouti in the regional context.”
The dispute lies along a small section of the 110-kilometer-long Djiboutian-Eritrean frontier. An agreement signed in 1900 between France and Italy left the precise location of the border along the Dumeira Mountain and Dumeira Islands ill defined.
Djibouti is a founding member of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism founded by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Defense and the small Red Sea nation has also formally joined the US-led and anti-ISIS coalition.
Qatar’s sudden withdraw may not have only cost Djibouti a strip of its territory. Djibouti also worries about the fate of its Djiboutian prisoners of war held by Eritrea – an issue that Qatar had attempted to negotiate.
At the end of the 2008 conflict, Eritrea held 19 Djiboutian prisoners of war. Four were later were released, and two escaped according to the Djiboutian government.
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“[Eritrea] continues to spread blatant lies about the prisoner’s condition and has refused to account for them despite repeated calls by the Security Council,” according to Mohammed Dualeh, Djibouti’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Djibouti hosts several foreign military bases, Camp Lemonier, a former French Foreign Legion outpost, has been America’s only permanent military base in Africa since 2001.
The country has also welcomed military bases from China and Japan in recent years.
Eritrea’s Stance on Djiboutian Prisoners of War (PoWs)
The Eritrean government would like, through the Chair, to inform the Monitoring Group (SeMG), there are no Djiboutian prisoners of war in Eritrean custody. This is an issue that has been properly settles and concluded by the government of Qatar on 18th March 2016. This fact is confirmed by the letter the Government of Qatar sent to the UN Secretary General. Eritrea, therefore, does not understand why the Monitoring Group wants to continue reporting on an issue that is clearly concluded and settled through the Qatari mediation. The Monitoring Group must maintain its neutrality and objectivity. The issue is not whether Eritrea should make available information concerning Djiboutian prisoners of war. The issue is to whom it should report.
Once again, in the spirit of transparency and cooperation as well as setting the record straight, the Eritrean government would like to present to the Security Council and the Monitoring Group, Eritrea’s stance on the issue of “Djiboutian prisoners of war in its custody”.
There are no more Djiboutian prisoners of war in Eritrean custody. There were only seven Djiboutian POWs in Eritrean custody out of which two escaped, one has died and the remaining four have been released on 18 March 2016 through the mediation of the Government of Qatar.
Djibouti on the one hand went to an extent of presenting contradictory figures.
– In 2015, in official letter sent to SEMG, the government of Djibouti claimed that “there are 18 POWs in Eritrean custody.”
– The 19 March 2016 Press Statement released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Djibouti claimed that “there are 13 Djiboutian Prisoners of War in Eritrean custody.’
– In a letter dated 31 March 2016 to the UN Security Council, the Permanent Representative of Djibouti to the United Nations claimed that “there are 15 Djiboutian prisoner of war in Eritrean custody.”
Clearly, the Djiboutian government has not only been fabricating contradictory figures but has also failed to track and coordinate its own fabricated figures and statements. Contrary to the Djiboutian disinformation campaign, the Government of Qatar has clearly stated that the four POWs released by Eritrea “were part of a group of seven in Eritrean custody, out of which one has died and two others fled.”
During the receiving ceremony at the airport, in a joint conference, the Djiboutian Foreign Minister, praised the release of Djiboutian POWs by Eritrea “as a positive step forward.”
Immediately after the press conference, accompanied by the Foreign Ministers of Qatar and Djibouti, the four Djiboutian POWs were taken to the palace to meet the President of Djibouti. In this meeting, the President of Djibouti expressed his appreciation to the Emir of Qatar for the role he played in the release of the Djiboutian POWs and expressed his commitment to the Qatari mediation process.
It must be underlined that be it at the airport or at the Palace handover ceremonies, the Djiboutian government high-level officials have never complained or registered their reservation to the Government of Qatar concerning the number of Djiboutian released by Eritrea.
In fact, informing the release of Djiboutian POWs by Eritrea as well as settlement and conclusion of the issue, the Government of Qatar sent a letter to the UN Secretary General on 18 March 2016. In response to this positive development, between the two countries and the United Nations Secretary-General and several governments commended the release of Djiboutian POWs by Eritrea and expressed their support to the mediation effort of the Government of Qatar to resolve other outstanding issues between Djibouti and Eritrea.