Ethiopia to resume commercial flights to north

By Corinne Dufka

AXUM, Ethiopia, June 16 (Reuters) - Ethiopia said on Tuesday it would resume commercial flights to three northern towns on Wednesday in a sign that tension in the undeclared border war with Eritrea might be diminishing.

A day after the two countries agreed a U.S.-brokered moratorium on air strikes, state radio said Ethiopian Airlines would restart flights to Mekele, Axum and Shere.

The towns are in northern Ethiopia and vulnerable to attack by Eritrea's small air force.

Hundreds have died in a border dispute that turned into a ground war involving thousands of troops. Both sides began air strikes on June 5.

Close to the front, Reuters journalists in Axum said Ethiopia was still ferrying reinforcements to the border.

They said 22 trucks, each carrying about 50 militiamen, rattled through the town on Monday heading for Sheraro on the Badme front. Four more trucks drove by on Tuesday morning.

Women fighters in Axum were cooking Ethiopia's staple injera bread around the clock, sending the flat loaves up to the front in batches of 10,000.

``We really would love to go the front. But what we're doing is important for the war effort, too,'' said Sendel Ahmed, one of the bakers.

There have been no reports of significant fighting on the Badme, Zalambessa or Assab fronts since June 11 and there were hopes the conflict could be moving towards negotiation.

A four-point peace plan, drawn up by the United States and Rwanda, is still on the table and won support at last week's summit of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

But the two sides are far apart on the causes and potential resolution of the dispute. Ethiopia backs the plan but Eritrea has effectively rejected it.

Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin said on Monday an OAU mission by four African presidents, who are due to visit both countries this week, would not replace the U.S.-Rwanda initiative.

``(The OAU mission) was not to substitute for the U.S.-Rwanda initiative but rather to continue working on it as a firm basis for peaceful negotiations,'' he told a news conference.

``Ethiopia will never renegotiate the U.S.-Rwanda peace proposal -- if Eritrea continues to reject the proposal it indicates that it is not ready for a peaceful resolution,'' he said.

Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki said the mission of the U.S.-Rwanda facilitators has already failed and he expected new proposals from the OAU.

Afewerki has repeatedly said he is prepared for face-to-face talks with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

Diplomats say Eritrea objects to a clause in the U.S.-Rwanda plan calling on it to withdraw to positions it held before the start of hostilities on May 6.

Afewerki told state television in an interview broadcast late on Monday: ``We are in our land and our troops are in defensive positions.''

Seyoum said Ethiopia appreciated efforts by Tunisia, Egypt and other African and European states to bring peace. ``But we also believe that proliferation of initiatives would rather jeopardise the peace effort,'' he said.

Senior diplomats in the region believe Eritrea's strategy is to broaden the mediation forum as wide as possible in order to move on from the U.S.-Rwanda recommendations.

Seyoum accused Eritrea of trying to get help from countries in the Middle East for its war effort.

``Their schemes and machinations have been exposed. The Middle Eastern countries do understand they have common bonds and a bright future for constructive engagement in all areas of common endeavour with Ethiopia,'' he said.

On the front line inside Ethiopia there is still deep anger about Eritrea's air strike against the town of Mekele in which 47 people, including at least 10 children were killed.

Asked about the agreement to stop using air power, an Ethiopian commander at Sheraro was mistrustful.

``If it's true that they are not going to bomb our population, it is good. But we'll never be cheated again. We have lost our trust in them for ever,'' Major Guesh Gebre told Reuters.

Afewerki has expressed regrets for civilian deaths when Eritrean planes bombed Mekele and Adigrat.

The two states were one until Eritrea peacefully gained independence after a 1993 referendum, two years after rebels from both entities jointly overthrew Ethiopia's Marxist dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, after a long war.