Solution at hand

THE QUARREL between Yemen and Eritrea moved closer to a solution this week. As Middle East International went to press, the foreign ministers of both countries were due in Paris to sign an agreement which will take their Red Sea island dispute to arbitration.

Fighting broke out last December when Eritrean forces seized Greater Hanish, one of nine islands in an archipelago almost midway between the two states.

The five-page agreement commits both sides to avoiding the use of force and to accepting the verdict of five judges in a specially-created arbitration court. It is thought this procedure may be quicker than taking the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague - but even so the judges are unlikely to begin work before the autumn.

Despite this agreement, the level of suspicion remains high. After much wrangling over the choice of judges it was decided that Yemen and Eritrea would each pick two and the judges themselves would pick the fifth. Both sides must meet a strict deadline for presenting their evidence to the court - which could yet de-rail the process.

The first thing the court must decide is the "area of conflict". Even that is not as simple as it sounds. Eritrea wants a ruling on sovereignty of the entire archipelago while Yemen insists the issue is Greater Hanish only.

The islands themselves are unimportant - the three largest are Zuqar (48 sq miles), Greater Hanish (29 sq miles), and Lesser Hanish (three sq miles) - but it is thought that associated fishing and mineral rights may lie at the root of the dispute. They are also strategically placed, close to the Bab al-Mandab straits linking the Red Sea and with the Indian Ocean. For more than 20 years there have been persistent suggestions of Israeli interest in establishing a base there.

The status of the islands, which were once part of the Ottoman empire, has never been formally settled by international convention. During the British occupation of Aden, Britain maintained two lighthouses on the islands, and is thought to have transferred the territory to South Yemen on independence in 1967. South Yemen united with the north in 1990 to form the Republic of Yemen.

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 European 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, but they were humiliatingly driven out by the Eritreans in December. Yemen still has forces on neighbouring Zuqar where it also maintains a lighthouse.

Eritrea, which has officially existed as an independent state for only three years, bases its claim to the islands on an earlier Ethiopian claim. That, in turn, was based partly on a 1938 agreement under which Britain allowed Italian officials on the islands to protect fishermen visiting from Eritrea, which was then ruled by Italy.

Meanwhile in Yemen last week security forces released the 20-year-old son of the governor of Aden who had been held hostage for five days by members of the Khawlan tribe. The tribesmen were apparently protesting at a legal ruling that a house which the Socialist Party gave to Colonel Ahmad Ubad Sharif, a prominent Khawlan member, in 1986, must be returned to its original owner.

Col Sharif, who is also a member of the Socialist Party's central committee and an adviser to the Interior Ministry, denied involvement, saying "My job at the Interior Ministry is to guarantee security in the country". He left Yemen for Saudi Arabia four months ago and failed to return as expected after the hajj. Yemen is now seeking his extradition.

Also last week, at least three people were killed in an explosion at an ammunition depot in Aden. It was the second mishap of this kind in the accident-prone city within 12 months (see Middle East International 502).