June 14, 2008 / 6:45 PM / 12 years ago

Djibouti president accuses Eritrea over border fight

By Barry Malone

ADDIS ABABA, June 14 (Reuters) - Djibouti's president on Saturday accused Eritrea of starting clashes between the two countries in his first public comments on fighting this week over their common border near Red sea shipping lanes.

President Ismail Omar Guelleh's comments came at a meeting of heads of state from the seven member regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which Eritrea belongs to but has been boycotting.

At the meeting in Ethiopia's capital, IGAD urged calm between the two neighbouring Horn of Africa states, which fought after a two-month border standoff erupted into the first combat between the pair -- two of Africa's youngest and smallest countries -- since 1996.

Guelleh said the fighting that started on Tuesday and lasted two days had killed 12 Djiboutian soldiers and wounded 55 more.

"We've always had good relations," Guelleh told journalists. "But they aggressively occupied part of our country. This is an aggression we are resisting."

Eritrea has not commented directly on how the clashes started, but has rejected any suggestion it crossed Djibouti's border and Western criticism that it started the fighting.

European Commissioner for Development and Aid Louis Michel, met Guelleh in Addis Ababa on Saturday and will meet Eritrean President Isiais Afewerki in Eritrean capital Asmara on Sunday in an attempt at shuttle diplomacy.

"There is no reason for this," he told reporters in Addis Ababa. "There is space to solve it through peaceful means."

Djibouti hosts French and U.S. military bases and is the main route to the sea for Eritrea's arch foe Ethiopia, Washington's top regional ally. France has said its military was providing logistical support to Djibouti.

Eritrea has fractious ties with the West, which accuses it of backing Somali insurgents and expelling U.N. peacekeepers on its border with Ethiopia.

It also has withdrawn from IGAD, which it accuses of backing Ethiopia and the latter's support for the interim Somali government.

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, the outgoing IGAD chairman, called Eritrea's decision to withdraw from the body "a serious threat to security in the region".

IGAD in a communique "called upon both parties, in particular the government of Eritrea, to heed the call for restraint by the United Nations, the African Union and the League of Arab States". (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/ ) (Editing by Toby Reynolds)

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