Clash over islands

UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali held separate talks with the presidents of Yemen and Eritrea last weekend in an effort to resolve the conflict over a group of islands in the Red Sea. Earlier Eritrea had released 196 Yemeni soldiers and 17 civilians taken prisoner when it seized control of Greater Hanish island on December 18. The dispute over this obscure 12-mile strip of land has already sparked a war of words between the Arab League and the Organisation of African Unity and cast a shadow over one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

Greater Hanish is one of three main islands in an archipelago near the southern mouth of the Red Sea, dividing the waterway into two strips little more than 30 miles wide. All shipping from the Suez canal passes the islands en route to the Indian Ocean. At least since the British occupation of Aden, the islands have generally been regarded as part of Yemen. Eritrean claims to the territory began in earnest only last year, and two rounds of talks had taken place before the invasion. Eritrea's case appears to be based on an earlier Ethiopian claim.

Until recently Greater Hanish was inhabited only by a handful of Yemeni fishermen, apart from a short period when Yemen allowed Eritrean guerrillas to use it as a base for their liberation struggle. Last year a German company, under Yemeni auspices, began building a hotel and scuba diving centre there. The Yemenis then sent a force of 200 men, ostensibly to guard the construction site.

The Eritrean attack took Yemen by surprise - especially since President Issayas Afewerki had sent a conciliatory note to his Yemeni counterpart, Ali Abdullah Salih, only a few hours earlier. For the invasion the Eritreans used all the seaworthy vessels they had, according to one source, including local fishing boats and an Egyptian ferry which they commandeered. During the fighting a passing Russian merchant ship was hit and damaged in mistake for a Yemeni naval vessel.

The motives for the attack remain puzzling but three different theories have emerged. The first, and simplest, is that the Eritreans became alarmed by the growing Yemeni presence on the island and over-reacted. The Eritrean leaders are young, adventurous and inexperienced in government: after years of guerrilla warfare they still have what one Yemeni official called "a rebel mind-set".

The second theory comes from Yemeni opposition sources. They claim that during the 1994 war against southern separatists Sana'a received various forms of help from Eritrea, which acted as intermediary in supplying aircraft spares from Israel. The Eritreans took Hanish, they say, when Sana'a failed to deliver the promised reward. This (perhaps too predictably) contrives to accuse the Sana'a government of perfidy while also implicating Israel in its 1994 victory.

The third theory directly implicates Israel in the capture of Hanish. In view of Yemen's military humiliation in the battle for the island, this might be considered as nothing more than an attempt by Sana'a to save some face. The details, however, are interesting. Sources close to the Yemeni president claim - on the basis of intercepted radio messages in Hebrew - that "several Israelis" had helped to direct the Eritrean operation, including a Lieutenant-Colonel named as Michael Duma. Despite this, Yemen has made no formal complaint to Israel.

The claim is also linked to speculation that Eritrea plans to give Israel a strategic base at the southern end of the Red Sea. Relations between Eritrea and Israel are warm; President Afewerki has reportedly been there for medical treatment. An intriguing twist to this theory is the suggestion that Israel has no real intention of setting up a base in the southern Red Sea but merely wants to establish the threat in order to bind Yemen more firmly into the Middle East peace process.