Two dead in Djibouti-Eritrea border clash-witness


Wed 11 Jun 2008, 9:52 GMT

DJIBOUTI (Reuters) - Two Djiboutian soldiers were killed and 21 wounded when troops clashed with Eritrean forces along their border overlooking strategic Red Sea shipping lanes, Djibouti said on Wednesday.

The first fighting since 1996 between Eritrea and Djibouti broke out on Tuesday after a nearly two-month standoff. Djibouti hosts French and U.S. military bases and is the main route to the sea for Eritrea's arch-foe Ethiopia.

Djibouti said the clash began after Eritrean soldiers deserted and the Eritreans fired on them, prompting return fire. A second outbreak came when Eritrean soldiers later demanded their deserters back.

Eritrean officials declined to comment and there was no independent confirmation.

Fighting continued on Wednesday in the Mount Gabla area of northern Djibouti, Djibouti's Defence Ministry said.

Also known as Ras Doumeira, it overlooks the strategic Bab al-Mandib straits, which are a major shipping route to and from Europe and the Middle East.

A Reuters witness at a French hospital in Djibouti said helicopters had ferried in dead and wounded soldiers.

In mid-April, Djibouti accused Eritrea of digging trenches and building fortifications on the Djiboutian side of the frontier. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki told Reuters in a recent interview that was a "fabrication."

MILITARISED

The Djiboutian army says nearly 75 percent of its 11,000 troops are now stationed along its boundary with Eritrea, which is one of Africa's most militarised states and has more than 200,000 soldiers as part of a mandatory conscription programme.

Djibouti hosts two foreign military bases, including one of France's biggest overseas contingents and a U.S. counter-terrorism task force of about 2,000 soldiers -- many of them elite special forces.

It is also a vital route for landlocked Ethiopia, which has vowed to protect its shipping access in Djibouti if necessary.

Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a border war in 1998-2000 that killed 70,000 people, and lingering enmity has fuelled conflict in neighbouring Somalia and in Ethiopia's Ogaden region.

Former colonial power France signed a mutual defence pact with Djibouti after the Horn of Africa nation's independence in 1977.

Djibouti has turned itself into a regional shipping hub after massive investment from Dubai.

In a letter to the U.N. Security Council in early May, Djibouti's foreign minister said he suspected a "sinister" move by Eritrea to disrupt shipping lines along the Red Sea.

This weekend, an African Union fact-finding mission was in Djibouti to investigate the issue. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com/ ) (Additional reporting by Jack Kimball in Asmara; Editing by Bryson Hull and Matthew Tostevin)

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