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IdentifierCreatedClassificationOrigin
08DJIBOUTI685 2008-08-26 16:37:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Djibouti
Cable title:  

DJIBOUTI: ICRC REPORTS 19 ERITREAN POWS IN

Tags:   PREL PREF MOPS KPKO ER DJ ET 
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1. (C) SUMMARY. The International Committee of the Red Cross
(ICRC) reports having interviewed 19 Eritrean
prisoners-of-war (POWs) and 40 defector/deserters in
Djibouti, as a result of June 11 border hostilities between
Djibouti and Eritrea. The future of these former Eritrean
troops remains unclear: the ICRC states that its mandate does
not allow it accept defector/deserters; UNHCR officials in
Djibouti have not only been reluctant to accept
defector/deserters (citing security concerns about placing
them with existing refugees in Djibouti's sole refugee camp),
but have also given contradictory statements about their
involvement in this issue. The ICRC's assertion that the
GODJ has reported 19 missing Djiboutian soldiers--including a
senior colonel --raises speculation that the 19 Eritreans in
Djibouti's custody will be held for a possible prisoner
exchange. END SUMMARY.



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ICRC EXCHANGE OF POWS THWARTED BY ERITREAN DENIAL OF CONFLICT


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2. (C) On August 21, Moustapha Mohamed Barkad, the sole ICRC
officer in Djibouti, reported to Conoff that ICRC had visited
and interviewed 19 POWs (from the June 10-11 conflict at the
Djibouti-Eritrea border) and 40 Eritrean defectors/deserters
in Djibouti, during an ICRC delegation visit from June 15
through August 20. The POWs reported to ICRC that Eritrean
military servicemen will continue to defect to Djibouti,
because they dislike serving in the Eritrean Army. One of
the 19 POWs is reportedly a Somali transit migrant, whom the
Eritreans captured near the Eritrean/Djiboutian border and
forced to serve in the Eritrean military.



3. (U) Barkad also reported that ICRC has been providing
medical support at the border to Djibouti since June 12, as
well as games to the POWs.



4. (C) Barkad stated that ICRC's mandate would not allow the
ICRC to accept the defectors/deserters from the GODJ.
However, ICRC was working closely with the GODJ, and
attempting to work with the GSE in Asmara to mediate an
exchange of POWs. Barkad reported that his ICRC colleagues
in Asmara had attempted to communicate with the GSE regarding
the Djiboutian POWs on several occasions; however, the GSE
continued to deny any conflict with Djibouti. Nevertheless,
Barkad said he was confident that the GSE would eventually
communicate with the ICRC, citing past experience with the
GSE mediating the release of POWs during the 1998-2001
Ethiopia/Eritrea border conflict. He observed that in 1998,
the ICRC had succeeded in gaining access to the Ethiopian
POWs held by Eritrea.



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19 MISSING DJIBOUTIAN SOLDIERS, INCLUDING COLONEL


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5. (C) Barkad said the GODJ had reported to the ICRC a total
of 19 missing military servicemen, including a Djiboutian
colonel, from the border conflict. However, he added, until
the GSE acknowledged the conflict, and that the GSE had
Djiboutian POWs in custody, the ICRC could not provide
assistance to the families of the missing persons. As the
wife of the missing Djiboutian colonel had created an
association to assist the missing soldiers' families, ICRC
sought to link the association with other international NGOs.



6. (C) At the GODJ's request, ICRC had asked the United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to accept the
defectors/deserters. Acting UNHCR Representative, Abdulahi
Ould el Ba, reportedly informed the ICRC that the Eritrean
deserter/defectors were not a priority. However, UNCHR
Representative Ann Encontre, who returned to Djibouti August
23 after taking leave since July, subsequently refuted Ould
el Ba's statement, saying this situation was her top
priority. While reiterating security concerns about
accepting the Eritrean deserters/defectors (ref A), she said
she was willing to interview the deserters/defectors and

DJIBOUTI 00000685 002 OF 002


planned to work with ICRC and the GODJ.



7. (C) NOTE. In a separate meeting with Conoff on August 20,
acting UNHCR representative Ould el Ba reported that there
were 36 Eritrean deserters/defectors in GODJ custody, housed
at Megash Camp--a former UNHCR transit camp near Holhol (in
Djibouti's southeastern Ali Sabieh Region). Ould el Ba said
UNHCR had not/not yet accepted these 36 Eritrean
deserter/defectors for resettlement, stating that UNHCR
suspected that the GODJ may seek to add
non-deserter/defectors to this group. END NOTE.



8. (C) The exact number of Djiboutian troops who were
casualties or MIA, as a result of June 10-11 fighting, is
unknown. Initial reports suggested 22 Djiboutian MIA, but
authorities subsequently recovered the bodies of several
Djiboutian troops. Embassy SAO reports that the Djiboutian
military requested 30 body bags from the U.S. military,
following the June skirmish, suggesting at least that number
of KIA. State-run Djiboutian media have highlighted
President Guelleh and GODJ officials building new homes for
the families of Djiboutian troops killed June 10-11;
state-run media said homes were being built for 44 families.



9. (U) BIO-DATA: Barkad is a native Djiboutian who has been
the sole ICRC officer in Djibouti since 1993. Although he
has an office in Djibouti, he spends most of his time at the
ICRC regional office in Nairobi. ICRC plans to reassign
Barkad in 2009, when he will be replaced as regional director
by Christophe Luedi. Fred Green, a Swiss national, will
replace current deputy director Ouivier Duboic on September


1. Barkad expects ICRC's new regional leadership to visit
Djibouti in October.



10. (C) COMMENT: Eritrean troops began voluntarily
surrendering their arms and defecting or deserting to
Djibouti in April 2008, prior to the outbreak of hostilities
at Ras Doumeira on June 11. Since April, Post has raised its
concerns with senior GODJ principals that the GODJ should
seek to transfer Eritrean defector/deserters to international
control (i.e., to either the ICRC or to UNHCR for
resettlement), rather than have them remain in Djiboutian
custody. Ambassador raised this issue specifically with
National Security Advisor Hassan Said Khaireh. Indeed, the
June 11 firefight was prompted by Eritrean troops firing on
their own comrades deserting to Djibouti. Post believes that
GODJ officials recognize that returning Eritrean
deserter/defectors to Eritrea would imperil their personal
safety. However, the ICRC's report that up to 19 Djiboutian
troops are missing, raises speculation that the GODJ may seek
to hold the 19 Eritrean POWs as a potential bargaining chip,
in the event an exchange is sought. As the approximately
4,000-person Djiboutian army has a total of only 4 general
officers, the missing Djiboutian colonel is likely a key
military leader, as he would be one of the Djiboutian
military's most senior officers. END COMMENT.
WONG