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By Andrew Cawthorne
Addis Ababa - Ethiopia's tiny neighbour Eritrea has nearly 10 000 soldiers and militia inside a UN buffer zone on their disputed border in a "flagrant" breach of a ceasefire, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said.
His figure was far higher than the 1 500 soldiers the United Nations last week accused Asmara of moving to the border where a 1998-2000 war killed more than 70 000 people and left the Horn of Africa neighbours on bitter terms.
Meles told Reuters in an interview that besides the 1 500 soldiers and tanks mentioned by the United Nations, thousands more members of a militia of armed local farmers had been "smuggled" into the sensitive border zone.
"It's close to 10 000, including the so-called militia," he said late on Tuesday.
"We consider this to be the most flagrant violation of the ceasefire agreement so far. Nevertheless, our position remains that we shall not respond in kind to this provocative act."
Eritrea has not given numbers, but acknowledged it has personnel in the area for agricultural work like harvesting.
"What is the fuss about? This is sovereign Eritrean territory and this is perfectly understandable," presidential adviser Yemane Ghebremeskel told Reuters recently.
Experts also note that army and civilian life in Eritrea, one of the world's most militarised nations, are closely intertwined. A Reuters reporter at the border zone last year saw both soldiers with pitch-forks and civilians with rifles.
The incursion has, however, heightened tensions between Eritrea and the UN peacekeeping mission, and fuelled the seemingly endless enmity between Asmara and Addis Ababa.
"You don't need tanks to pick crops. That's just the Eritrean government's way of poking their finger at the eyes of the international community as a whole," Meles said.
He implied Eritrea was taking advantage of Ethiopia's tensions with Islamists in also neighbouring Somalia, but said Addis Ababa would not respond unless attacked.
"The Eritrean government is the main armer and trainer of the jihadists in Somalia. It would be very naive to assume that the current violation of the temporary security zone is just a coincidence," Meles said.
"But in the interests of peace, we don't shoot until and unless they shoot."
Eritrea is accused by the United Nations and others of arming the Islamists, while Ethiopia has sent military personnel to help its rivals the interim Somali government.
That has fuelled fears of a regional war.
Meles said Eritrea has frequently sent armed men into the UN-monitored border zone since the 2000 ceasefire. But the "serious escalation" this time was the presence of regular soldiers, tanks and heavy artillery.
Eritrea's roughly 4-million population is dwarfed by Ethiopia's 79-million, but Asmara is proud of having won independence from its giant neighbour in a three-decade conflict until 1991.
Meles and Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki were comrades-in-arms during the toppling of former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, but quickly fell out culminating in war at the end of the 1990s and political standoff since then.
Both were once hailed by the West as part of a "new generation" of young African progressives, but are now viewed abroad as authoritarians.
Meles smiled when asked about reports they were cousins.
"I understand from where they are coming. My mother happens to be an Eritrean. And the president of Eritrea has relations in and round the area where I was born," Meles said in rare comments on the issue.
"But this geographic overlap does not have any biological implications. We do not have any family." - Reuters