Trouble on the border

TEN Yemeni soldiers were reported killed during recent clashes in which Saudi forces are said to have seized Jabal Jahfan, seven kilometres inside Yemeni territory. News of the incursion sent Yemen’s foreign minister scurrying to Riyadh with a message from President Ali Abdullah Salih.

Although the latest skirmishes might give the impression that a solution to the 66-year-old border dispute is as far away as ever, that is not quite the case. A basic outline of the new frontier - known as the "Como Line" - was provisionally agreed between Salih and Prince Sultan at a meeting in Italy in 1997, and the current argument is mainly about how to relate this to precise points on the ground.

At the western end, the draft agreement incorporates the line adopted by the Ta’if treaty of 1934. The outstanding issue is where this line actually lies, since the treaty defined it by reference to various geographical features and tribal territories rather than precise co-ordinates. There are, apparently, piles of stones on the ground marking the boundary but these have a habit of moving about when one side or the other is not looking.

One of Saudis’ concerns is that the treaty gave Yemen most of the mountain-tops and, theoretically, a military advantage in any conflict. They have therefore been eager to shift the border to lower ground. A seven-hour meeting in Sana’a towards the end of last year broke up in disarray when the Saudis insisted that Jabal Sar, a high peak at the eastern end of the Ta’if line, was actually a much smaller hill six kilometres to the south.

The Yemenis have responded to the Saudis’ security concerns by offering to extend the demilitarised zone provided by the 1934 treaty from five kilometres to 20 on either side of the border. This, they say, would take account of the longer range of modern weapons and was the distance accepted by Oman in its border settlement with Yemen a few years ago.

Meanwhile, Yemen’s interior ministry claimed that "foreign fronts" (usually a coded reference to the Saudis) are behind kidnappings of foreigners and that their aim is to damage the country's reputation and stability.

The statement was prompted by the kidnapping, on January 26, of Kenneth White, an American oil worker who was abducted – most unusually – from his bed in the Halliburton company’s compound. The kidnappers broke in by cutting through barbed wire and skilfully covered the tracks of their escape route.

The Yemen Times described it as "the most professional" kidnapping the country has witnessed and – again, most unusually – the motive for the abduction remains unclear. In the absence of any real clues, the authorities have resorted to ever more extraordinary claims. Besides the "foreign fronts", they have also accused unnamed leaders of the main opposition party, Islah, and linked it to a $400 million land dispute in Aden.