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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Ethiopian army commander defects to Eritrea

NAIROBI, Aug 10 (Reuters) - Ethiopia on Thursday said a dissident general, who had tried to "sow discord" in the army, has defected to rival Eritrea.

Ethiopian Brigadier General Kemal Gelchu crossed into Eritrea on Tuesday, said the Ethiopian Defence Ministry, which described him as disgruntled after being denied a promotion.

"He defected under the cover of night, because he knew that his attempt to sow discord among the rank and file of the armed forces was about to be exposed," the ministry said.

Eritrea immediately claimed Kemal's defection as a victory demonstrating growing internal divisions in Ethiopia.

"In continuation of the aforementioned mass opposition inside (Ethiopia), massive uprising is equally being witnessed within the ranks of the Ethiopian Armed Forces," the Eritrean Information Ministry's shabait.com Web site said.

State-run media in both countries regularly report military defections, but Kemal's is among the most high-profile yet.

It comes amid continued tensions between the Horn of Africa neighbours over issues still unresolved from a 1998-2000 border war, as well as a fresh conflict in nearby Somalia.

Diplomats say Ethiopia and Eritrea are engaged in a proxy war in Somalia, with Asmara supporting militant Islamists who oppose the interim government backed by Addis Ababa.

Eritrea said Kemal had crossed the border with dozens of senior officers, hundreds of troops and military hardware.

No independent confirmation of that could be immediately obtained, while Ethiopia said only the general had left the country.

Eritrea, which won independence from Ethiopia in 1991, said Kemal crossed at Badme.

That town was the flashpoint for the Ethiopia-Eritrea border war which killed 70,000 people and ended with a 2000 peace deal under which both sides agreed to accept an independent ruling on their common frontier.

The border between the two countries is heavily guarded by both sides, and monitored by a U.N. mission with 2,300 peacekeepers.

Ethiopia's refusal to allow the demarcation of the border has infuriated Eritrea, which demands the ruling be accepted as agreed. Ethiopia says the ruling unfairly cuts villages, farms and homes in half. (Additional reporting by Tsegaye Tadesse in Addis Ababa)
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