Nine dead in escalating Djibouti-Eritrea clash

DJIBOUTI, June 12 (Reuters) - Border clashes between Eritrea and Djibouti have killed 9 Djiboutian soldiers and wounded 60 others in three days of fighting between the Horn of Africa nations, a defence official said on Thursday.

In the first fighting since the mid-1990s between two of Africa's smallest states, Eritrean and Djiboutian troops have exchanged fire along a part of their shared border overlooking strategic shipping lanes in the Red Sea.

"The fighting is still ongoing. The dead and injured are more today, up to 9 dead and 60 wounded," said a Djiboutian military official, on condition of anonymity.

Djiboutian state media said the Red Sea state had captured 100 Eritrean prisoners.

There was, however, no independent verification of events from the remote border area that has long been a source of tension between the two countries.

Without confirming or denying the clashes, Eritrea has dismissed Djibouti's versions as "concocted animosity."

The Foreign Ministry said it would not "get involved in an invitation of squabbles and acts of hostility."

And there was no word on any Eritrean casualties.

The clashes erupted on Tuesday after a nearly two-month face off along their frontier. Djibouti accuses Asmara of entering its territory to build defences -- a claim Eritrea denies.

"It's a fabrication...We decline the invitation to go into another crisis in the region," Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki told Reuters last month.

Djibouti's smaller army of 11,000 troops has begun to call up demobilised soldiers and retired policemen. Eritrea has 200,000 soldiers, but many are on its border with Ethiopia.

Addis Ababa and Asmara fought a 1998-2000 over their frontier, and tensions between the two nations remain high.

The fighting along the Djibouti-Eritrea border broke out in the Mount Gabla area, also known as Ras Doumeira, which straddles the Bab al-Mandib straits.

Djibouti is home to a U.S. and a French military base.

Paris signed a mutual defence treaty with Djibouti after that nation's independence in 1977.

It is also an important route for landlocked Ethiopia, which has vowed to protect its access to Djibouti.

The United States and Ethiopia, Washington's main ally in the region, blamed Eritrea for the clashes.

"These hostilities represent an additional threat to peace and security in the already volatile Horn of Africa," State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said on Wednesday.

Djibouti says the fighting began after Eritrean soldiers fired on some deserters, prompting Djibouti to return fire.

A second outbreak followed when Eritrean troops asked for their deserters back, Djibouti said.

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