UNITED NATIONS -- The UN yesterday rejected an Eritrean order to withdraw all Americans, Canadians, and Europeans from the peacekeeping mission that monitors the border with Ethiopia.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his top peacekeeping official said the order -- which gives the peacekeepers in question 10 days to leave -- violates Eritrea's obligations to the UN Charter.
The UN Security Council and Annan also condemned Eritrea's move and demanded the government reverse its order.
''This is for us a totally unacceptable position," said Jean-Marie Guehenno, the UN undersecretary-general for peacekeeping. ''Certainly we are not planning to pull out any of the people who have been mentioned."
Eritrea gave no reason for the expulsion, but the move came amid mounting concern that war could again erupt between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which have been massing troops near the border. Guehenno said the demand appeared to be connected to Eritrea's continuing anger that Ethiopia hasn't accepted a border agreement from 2002.
The nearly 3,300-strong peacekeeping force comprises peacekeepers and military observers from some 40 countries. The largest contingent, more than 1,500 troops, is from India.
Only a few Americans, Canadians, and Europeans serve the mission, some reportedly as military observers and in key logistical positions.
The Eritrean move was the latest against peacekeepers there. On Oct. 5, the government banned helicopter flights by UN peacekeepers in its airspace in a buffer zone with Ethiopia. It then banned UN vehicles from patrolling at night on its side of the zone, prompting the UN to vacate 18 of its 40 posts.
Despite repeated appeals from the Security Council and the secretary-general, Eritrea has refused to lift these restrictions. Last month, the council passed a resolution warning of possible sanctions unless Eritrea lifts restrictions on the UN peacekeepers and the two sides reverse a worrisome troop buildup.
At a formal meeting, the Security Council called Eritrea's order ''completely unacceptable" and said members will be consulting on how to respond.
As a sign of the council's concern, Britain's UN ambassador, Emyr Jones Parry, the current council president, said he had summoned the Eritrean ambassador to a meeting late yesterday.
''It's potentially a very serious situation. Some of the actions have aggravated that situation and we must do everything possible to minimize the risk of a re-emergence of conflict," Jones Parry said.
A senior UN official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the expulsion order would apply to 90 military observers and 50 civilian staff, as well as an as-yet undetermined number of contractors.
Yet Annan said ''the United Nations cannot accede to Eritrea's request," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. Dujarric said it violates the country's obligation under the UN Charter to respect the international character of UN staff.