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Neighbors' war of words risks violent turn

Gebre the Cake Maker was a beloved figure when he was behind the counter at the Delicious Bakery, a cheery shop off the central piazza of Ethiopia's capital. The rich came to Gebre for excellent wedding pastries. The poor came for free bread and sweets.

And the police came _ one cloudy day last summer _ because the cake maker was Eritrean. Gebre Tensae was taken to a walled compound, packed onto a bus and returned to the neighboring country that has been on the verge of war with Ethiopia for more than seven months. For six of those months there has been no serious fighting, but given what his onetime admirers are saying about Gebre the Cake Maker, it would be too much to say hostilities have eased.

"They are saying he says he taught Ethiopians to eat spaghetti with a spoon and a fork, instead of with our hands," said David Kebede, on the sidewalk outside the shuttered bakery. The men around him nod their familiarity with the uniquely Eritrean insult, one that presumes Gebre has assumed superior airs never displayed when they knew him.

"Of course," one of the men explained later, "because of the propaganda, they will dislike him."

Propaganda and expelled citizens are what Ethiopia and Eritrea now exchange instead of artillery fire. Since June, when hundreds of soldiers on each side died in clashes along the nations' disputed border, invective and mass deportations have at least temporarily replaced hot war, as two countries that once called each other family give every indication they are preparing to kill each other's people.

Some 400,000 troops _ about 200,000 on each side _ are estimated to be dug in along the 500-mile border, which was undefended until May. Since then, each side has created a heavily armored front that every week or so opens like a gate to let through a few more of the civilians one country is forcing to the other side.

Estimates of the number of deportations are sketchy, but based on figures from the Ethiopian government and from aid groups in Eritrea, perhaps 80,000 people have trudged across the no man's land between the countries, dragging along whatever belongings they can lift. Roughly half are Eritreans who had the misfortune of living in Ethiopia when the alliance between the countries went sour. The other half are Ethiopians who were living in Eritrea.

"It's not like Bosnia or anything like that, but it's not right," said a Western analyst in Addis Ababa.

Of the two countries, Ethiopia has taken most of the criticism, because its deportations are officially sanctioned and legally dubious. Shortly after war broke out, Ethiopia announced the expulsion not only of most Eritrean diplomats, but also members of Eritrea's ruling party, as well as anyone "who had been engaged in mobilizing resources to finance the Eritrean war of aggression."

"What was unusual was not taking the step of first declaring them illegal organizations and giving people a chance to disassociate themselves from them," the analyst said. "They were immediately guilty by association."

Independent observers generally agree that the damage from Ethiopia's policy has been mostly to families abruptly divided and to businesses left behind. But Makonnen Bishaw of the independent Ethiopian Human Rights Council said the ethnic violence in nearby Rwanda _ where next-door neighbors became butchers at the urging of their government _ stands as a warning.

"I think we've been lucky that it hasn't happened so far," Makonnen said. "It's very difficult to know what will happen in the future. I think these feelings are easier ignited than extinguished."

Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia, Africa's second-most populous country, only 5{ years ago, after a peaceful referendum that followed a 30-year war. The war ended after Eritrean insurgents joined forces with a second rebel army, which formed the government that rules Ethiopia today. But the "brotherhood" that defined relations between the neighbors was fractured first by economic disputes, then by hostilities over who owns stretches of mostly desolate border areas.