The Hanish Islands conflict, was a dispute between Yemen and Eritrea over the island of Greater Hanish in the Red Sea, one of the largest in the then disputed Zukur-Hanish archipelago. Fighting took place over three days from 15 December to 17 December 1995. In 1998 the Permanent Court of Arbitration determined that the archipelago belonged to Yemen.

Map of the Hanish islands

Armed Conflict Edit

Fighting broke out after the Eritrean Defence Forces landed on the island and lasted three days before the islands were captured by the Eritreans. Reports vary on the number killed in action; between three and twelve members of the Eritrean Defence Forces were believed to have been killed while fifteen Yemeni soldiers were believed to have been killed. Between 185 and 196 Yemeni prisoners of war (soldiers) and 17 civilians were captured by the Eritreans. The prisoners were repatriated a few weeks later at the end of December to Yemen. During the fighting a passing Russian merchant ship was hit and damaged in mistake for a Yemeni naval vessel.

The archipelago is on the southern side of the Red Sea near Bab-el-Mandeb (Mouth of the Red Sea). The Red Sea is about 30 miles (50 km) wide at this point. Since the British occupation of Aden the islands had generally been regarded as part of Yemen although they were on the southern, Eritrean, side of the straits.

After being granted independence and membership of the United Nations, the new Eritrean government had started negotiations with Yemen over the status of the archipelago. Two rounds of talks had taken place before the invasion:

Gutmann [French mediator] produced an Agreement on Principles, which Eritrea and Yemen signed on 21 May. The two sides agreed to resort to arbitration, to refrain from using force, and to abide by the verdict of an arbitration tribunal. The French mediation effort almost collapsed when, on 10 August, Eritrean forces occupied Hanish al-Saghir. With Yemen threatening to take military action, the UN Security Council ordered Eritrean troops off the island. Asmara withdrew its forces on 27 August…. The renewed threat of conflict prompted Eritrea, at the end of August, to begin deploying along its coastline Russian-made SAM missiles acquired from Ethiopia.

– Lefebvre

On 22 November 1995, Yemen's Foreign Minister Adb al-Karim al-Iryani met in San'a' with three Eritrean officials to discuss the problem. Iryani, heading a Yemeni delegation, then attended a meeting in Eritrea on 7 December. There, both sides agreed to resolve their dispute over maritime borders through negotiations, which they scheduled for February 1996. If those negotiations failed, both sides agreed to take the case to the ICJ at The Hague.

– Lefebvre

Greater Hanish (or Hanish al-Kabir) is one of three main islands in an archipelago, and until 1995 was inhabited only by a handful of Yemeni fishermen. In 1995 German company, under Yemeni auspices, began building a hotel and scuba diving centre on the Island. The Yemenis then sent a force of 200 men, to guard the construction site. Eritrean officials thought that the construction work which the Yemen started on Greater Hanish was an attempt to establish facts on the ground before the negotiations scheduled for February started. "Prompted by concern over the Yemeni construction project on Hanish al-Kabir, Eritrea's Foreign Minister Petros Solomon delivered, on 11 November 1995, an ultimatum giving San'a one month to withdraw Yemeni military forces and civilians from Hanish al-Kabir"[5]. When that ultimatum ran out and the Yemeni military forces and civilians had not withdrawn the Eritreans launched their attack and captured the island.

Three other reasons have been proposed for the attack by the Eritreans on the island. The Yemeni opposition sources claimed that during 1994, Sana'a received clandestine military assistance from Israel via the Eritreans and the Eritreans took Hanish when Sana'a failed to deliver the promised payments. Yemen's military claimed that they had intercepted radio messages in Hebrew and that "several Israelis" had helped to direct the Eritrean operation. This led the Arab League to suggest that the real motive for the attack was that Israel intended to set up a base on the island. The third reason put forward is that there may be oil in the Red Sea and that the territorial rights to the seabed was the underlying reason for the war.

As no resolution to the problem could be reached in bilateral talks, the status of the archipelago was placed in front of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in the Netherlands.