FRANCE has emerged as a key mediator in the dispute between Yemen and Eritrea over islands in the Red Sea. In separate talks with both sides last week, President Jacques Chirac's special envoy, Francis Gutmann, put forward details of a proposed peace mechanism.
Fighting broke out last December when Eritrean forces seized control of Greater Hanish, one of three main islands in an archipelago almost midway between the two states, following Yemeni moves to develop it as a diving centre for tourists. Yemeni forces still hold Zuqar, another island a few miles to the north.
The loss of Hanish has dealt a humiliating blow to President Ali Abdullah Salih. Among the numerous officers taken prisoner on the island (but later released) was the Brigadier-General commanding the Yemeni army's western flank, together with three colonels, five majors, eight captains and 11 lieutenants.
The islands themselves are of little or no importance. Far more important is the effect ownership of them could have on the maritime frontier between Yemen and Eritrea, together with the offshore mineral rights. Last September the Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum Corporation signed a $28.5 million oil and gas exploration deal with Eritrea for a 6.7 million-acre area of the Red Sea known as the Zula block. This lies to the north and west of the disputed islands but almost touches Zuqar at its south-eastern end.
Although the French plan does not deal with the core issue directly, it does offer what a spokesman in Paris described as "the process to reach a peaceful solution". It is understood to involve some form of arbitration. A declaration by the Eritrean National Assembly on January 24 expressed hopes for solving the dispute by agreement or mediation but pointedly avoided mentioning arbitration. Yemen tends to favour arbitration, partly because it believes it has a strong legal case and partly because that would set a useful precedent for solving its more important border dispute with Saudi Arabia. But Yemen has also said Eritrea must withdraw from the islands before it will agree to arbitration.
The latest diplomatic moves are a sign of increasing French interest in the area. France has a large military base in Djibouti (one of Eritrea's neighbours) and growing economic ties with Yemen. The French company, Total, recently signed a multi-billion liquefied gas contract with Yemen - though relations were not helped last week when Yemeni tribesmen kidnapped 17 elderly French tourists visiting the ruins of Ma'rib.
Many Yemenis still suspect Israel of providing Eritrea with covert support, either for strategic reasons or in the hope of binding Yemen into the Middle East peace process (Middle East International 516). In a radio interview on January 10, the Yemeni foreign minister said Israeli involvement had not been proved "beyond any doubt", though it was known that Israel had supplied Eritrea with up to six boats before the invasion of Hanish.
The following day a curious incident (or perhaps non-incident) occurred in Paris, where President Salih and the Israeli prime minister, Shimon Peres, were both attending the funeral of President Mitterrand. At a press conference afterwards, Mr Peres claimed to have had a "brief meeting" with Salih during lunch. And according to Peres, Salih indicated that if Syria signed an accord with Israel, Yemen would probably follow. Yemen, on the other hand, emphatically denied that "official or other contacts" of any kind had taken place.