Eritrea defiant on U.S. diplomatic pressure – By Jeffrey Gettleman

September 18th, 2007 Print Print Email Email

NAIROBI: Responding to U.S. accusations that they have abetted terrorists in the volatile Horn of Africa, Eritrean officials have defended their actions and said that while they would like to have better relations with the United States, they had no intention of bowing to its pressure. (more…)

NAIROBI: Responding to U.S. accusations that they have abetted terrorists in the volatile Horn of Africa, Eritrean officials have defended their actions and said that while they would like to have better relations with the United States, they had no intention of bowing to its pressure.

During the weekend, the Eritrean government held a conference for Somali opposition leaders that included some prominent Islamists whom Jendayi Frazer, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, has called terrorists.

U.S. officials have threatened to list Eritrea as a state sponsor of terrorism, accusing it of funneling weapons to Somali insurgents. But Monday, Eritrean officials denied that they were trying to destabilize Somalia and said their conference was a legitimate way to rebuild the shattered country.

More than that, said Ali Abdu, Eritrea’s information minister, if Frazer was trying to make “Eritrea kneel down in front of her,” she had better learn what he called a basic Eritrean fact.

“Eritreans kneel on only two occasions,” he said. “When they pray and when they shoot.”

In the last few weeks, Eritrea has become a worsening headache for American policymakers. Its capital, Asmara, has become a magnet for rebel leaders from across East Africa. And its troops are building up on the disputed border of Ethiopia, which has already been a flash point for war.

What little taste Eritrean officials had for diplomatic niceties seems to have disappeared.

Eritrea has been fiercely independent from the moment the country broke off from Ethiopia in 1993. Back then, it was a darling of the West, considered the little-country-that-could and held up as a model of a crime-free, egalitarian African nation.

But in the late 1990s, things changed. Eritrea and Ethiopia went to war over Badame, a seemingly insignificant border town, and 100,000 people were killed.

U.S. diplomats helped broker a truce but then backed off after Ethiopia decided to ignore a commission, supported by the United Nations, that said Badame belonged to Eritrea.

“We expected the Americans to be fair,” said Yemane Gebre Meskel, the chief of staff for Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s president. “They weren’t.”

The Bush administration sees Ethiopia, with its 77 million people and one of Africa’s largest armies, as the best bulwark in the Horn of Africa against Islamist extremism, so the United States has consistently taken Ethiopia’s side against Eritrea, population 5 million, said Representative Donald Payne, Democrat of New Jersey and chairman of a House subcommittee on Africa.

“And that’s not productive,” he said. “Right now we’re boxing Eritrea into a corner.”

But Bush administration officials say Eritrea is fueling the growing violence in Somalia and point to a UN report in July that said Eritrea had covertly shipped planeloads of weapons to Islamist fighters there. Eritrean officials say the report was fabricated.

Last winter, American and Ethiopian military forces teamed up to oust an Islamist movement that briefly controlled Somalia’s seaside capital, Mogadishu, and install Somalia’s weak transitional government in the city.

It has not worked. An Iraq-style insurgency is burning its way across the country, with roadside bombs, political assassinations and suicide attacks, which were unheard of in Somalia until the Ethiopians arrived.

Frazer has also accused the Eritreans of arming separatist rebels in Ethiopia’s eastern Ogaden region, a charge that the rebels and Eritreans deny.

If the United States did designate Eritrea a state sponsor of terrorism, a possibility that Frazer raised last month, it would result in severe economic sanctions.

“I think it’s 50-50 right now whether this happens,” said a State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Some experts on the region contend that Eritrea has proved a reliable partner in combating Muslim extremism in recent years. It fought Sudan in the 1990s and championed Sudanese rebels in the south and in Darfur.

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