BADME, Ethiopia-Eritrea border (Reuters) - For the residents of Badme, a desolate border town in the war-scarred badlands between Ethiopia and Eritrea, new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s peace overtures to Asmara, Addis Ababa’s sworn enemy, are an insult to the living and the dead.
The local anger is in stark contrast to the international plaudits Abiy has won for appearing keen to defuse one of the most intractable diplomatic disputes in the Horn of Africa.
Many of Badme’s 15,000 people are veterans of a 1998-2000 conflict that drew comparisons to the First World War, with waves of conscripts forced to march through minefields towards Eritrean trenches, where they were cut down by machinegun fire.
Far from being an olive branch that might ease tensions between the two nations, locals said ceding Badme to Eritrea, which Abiy said Addis would finally do in accordance with a 2000 peace deal, is an act of betrayal.
“Why did we fight for it then to just give it away? All this sacrifice for nothing? For this?” said Dubale Getu, a wounded veteran who has lived in Badme since his deployment during the war.
As he spoke, he gestured toward the entrance of the town and the spacious cemetery where dozens of tombs lie, marking the symbolic final resting place of the 50,000 Ethiopian rank-and-file who perished in the war.
On the Eritrean side, 20,000 men are thought to have died.
Despite Badme’s centrality to what was, on the surface at least, a border conflict, nobody in the town was told about Abiy’s plans.
The first word Badme was to be ceded to Ethiopia’s bitter foe on the shores of the Red Sea came via state radio and television.
“The thought of moving these bodies from where they were sacrificed is desecration of their honour,” said unemployed 35-year-old Habtom Shiferaw, whose family members fought in the war.
Locals, he added, would not go quietly - a rare threat against the authority of the state in one of Africa’s most tightly controlled countries.
“They should not expect peace here if they force us to leave,” he said. “There will be violence.”
“We have no issues over reconciling with our Eritrean brothers. But we will not leave Badme. We do not want peace by giving away this land after all the sacrifice,” said Teklit Girmay, a local government official.
In a worrying sign for Abiy, a 41-year-old who has embarked on a radical economic and political reform drive since taking over in March, anger is rippling beyond Badme across Tigray, the northeast region that borders Eritrea.
Some Tigrayans, who have long been the leading ethnic group in the EPRDF coalition which has run the nation of 100 million for more than two decades, are concerned their interests will be hurt if Badme is surrendered.
Residents told Reuters that a protest had already taken place in the Irob district in Tigray, and there are signs in the region of friction over the decision by Abiy, a member of the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest.
Abiy was appointed after three years of unrelated unrest in the Oromo area but he needs the support of all members of the ruling coalition to push through sweeping changes including partial privatisation of the national airline and telecoms firm.
After his Badme bombshell, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, a regional political party that had dominated the EPRDF until Abiy took office in April, came out swinging against any concessions to Asmara.
“The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front will not take part in any process that harms the interests of the people of Tigray,” it said in a statement, demanding that any withdrawal be linked to additional concessions from Eritrea.
Eritrea’s government has not responded publicly to Addis Ababa’s offer nearly a week ago.
Eritrea has long said it wants Ethiopia to pull its troops out from Badme before normalising ties, citing a decision by a boundary commission at The Hague which awarded the town to Eritrea in 2002.
There are no signs yet in Badme of withdrawal of the Ethiopian forces stationed there.
Ethiopia’s government has said tens of thousands of troops are posted in the border outpost. When Reuters visited Badme on Friday, military trucks mounted with soldiers circulated through the town throughout the day.
Reporting by Aaron Maasho; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Ed Cropley and Alison Williams