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Eritrean troop movement sparks coup fears

Monday, January 21, 2013
By Katrina Manson

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Hundreds of soldiers are reported to have taken over the ministry of information in the Eritrean capital of Asmara, sparking fears of a coup in the one-party pariah statein the Horn of Africa.

The soldiers forced the director of state television to make an announcement, an Eritrean intelligence official told Reuters. “The soldiers have forced him to speak on state TV, to say the Eritrean government should release all political prisoners,” the source said on condition of anonymity. They also called for the implementation of the constitution, a regional expert said. No further details are available.

“We have received reports today of unusual military movement in and around Asmara,” a UK Foreign Office spokesman told the Financial Times, but could not confirm if a coup is taking place.

“Local radio and TV appear to have been shut down – we are seeking further information.” The UK has an ambassador based in Asmara. Free Eritrea Radio, which broadcasts from Paris, also carried reports of unusual activity.

“It sounds as if it’s more a mutiny [than a coup attempt] by lower-to-middle-ranking troops,” said a regional intelligence source in contact with the ministry of information, adding that it likely had tacit support from more senior military commanders. “It’s not a small thing – they have managed to pull off something that hasn’t been done for quite a while and it does show the regime is creaking at the seams, but they’re naive if they think they can force a conversation with [President Isaias].” Troops appear to have reinforced the presidential residency and central bank, the official added.

Eritrea, which seceded from much-larger neighbour Ethiopia in 1993 after decades of insurgency, has few friends in the region and fewer still in the west. President Isaias Afewerki, de facto leader since 1991, led independence fighters from the mid-1970s.

The military has long been the sole political force in a closed and increasingly haphazard state that relies on gold mining for its income. Government policies include forced labour and a permanent national service. Human Rights Watch says Eritrea is “one of the world’s poorest and most repressive countries”.

Canada’s Nevsun Resources, which operates the only industrial gold mine in the country, employs 1,400 people at its Bisha Mine, which it describes as a low-cost gold project with one of the highest grade open pits in the world. It says it has earned the government, which has a 40 per cent stake in the project, $400m since 2011.

Several other companies from Australia, Canada and China intend to begin mining operations in the country in 2013, prompting concern from human rights groups they risk human rights violations by drawing on forced labour programmes. The Eritrean government admits running a national service programme but denies claims it is “forced labour”.

The military “are the power brokers outside [President] Isaias”, said Jason Mosley, associate scholar at Chatham House. The state has been under “tremendous strain” of late, he said.

There has been a “constant stream of defections” over the past year, a regional expert added. A minister and former presidential acolyte Ali Abdu fled the country in December.

In the event of a military coup, it is unclear if Mr Afewerki’s Republican Guard would stay loyal to him or fight any usurpers from the army. “Will his own security apparatus stay loyal to him or drop him like a stone?” asked the expert.

Eritrea is regularly accused of supporting Ethiopia’s enemies – namely, extremist Islamist elements in Somalia – and withdrew from the regional body, IGAD, in protest at Ethiopia’s diplomatic and military support for the weak, donor-funded government in Somalia that was created to stave off the threat from Islamist militants al-Shabaab.

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