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Eritrean soldiers said to storm ministry; diplomat denies 'coup'

January 21, 2013|By Emily Alpert

Dissenting Eritrean soldiers reportedly stormed the state Ministry of Information on Monday, forcing its television chief to broadcast demands to free prisoners and put the country's languishing constitution into effect.

Officials at the Ministry of Information did not immediately answer phone calls and emails Monday seeking more information about the reported siege. An Eritrean diplomat said on Twitter that reports of a “coup” were untrue and denied that any statement calling to free prisoners was read on the air.

“There is no doom and gloom in Asmara,” Eritrean Ambassador to Japan Estifanos Afeworki wrote. The capital city was calm and all functions were “business as usual,” he said in a string of tweets to foreign journalists.

It was unclear late Monday whether the soldiers had been repelled. The seizure of the information ministry, reported by Eritrean sources to Reuters, the Agence France-Presse and other news outlets, would mark a rare eruption of dissent in the heavily militarized country.

The reported unrest also challenges the longstanding argument that Eritreans would not resist the government without outside help, said Daniel G. Mikael, chairman of Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change activist group.

“This was the proof that something like that could happen,” Mikael said. "This is going to spark the changes that are coming. It's a signal of what is to come."

State television stopped broadcasting at one point Monday, but later returned to the air, according to activists and media reports. The televised statement calling for prisoners to be freed was brief, lasting less than three minutes, Eritreans told Radio Erena.

“It just appeared suddenly,” said Biniam Simon, editor-in-chief of the Paris-based station. Eritreans inside the country told the radio station that the soldiers “were very friendly, not threatening anyone at gunpoint or anything,” he said. “They asked everybody politely to go outside.”

Elsewhere in Asmara, “it seems very, very calm,” the radio editor added. “It’s a very, very confusing situation right now inside Eritrea.”

Human rights groups estimate Eritrea holds between 5,000 and 10,000 political prisoners, a sign of the tight government grip on dissent under President Isaias Afwerki, who has held power since Eritrea wrested its independence from Ethiopia nearly two decades ago.

The East African country crafted a constitution in 1997 after gaining independence, but the document was never put into effect. National elections have been perennially postponed.

The only way the president will leave office is “in a casket or through a coup,” said Sandra Joireman, a professor of international relations at Wheaton College.

Information is also tightly restricted, as the scant reports on Monday underscored. All Eritrean media outlets are controlled by the state, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which labels Eritrea the most censored country on the globe. It also ranked Eritrea as one of the worst jailers of journalists worldwide, with the country holding 28 media workers in detention as of last month.

The mere fact that some information was leaking to the outside world Monday is a sign that “people inside the country are less frightened for the consequences and more unsettled with the conditions they’re living under,” said Dan Connell, a senior lecturer in African Studies at Simmons College.

Eritreans have been fleeing the country to avoid being forced to serve indefinitely in the military and government, an exodus that has drained its defense forces, according to Connell. On top of that, its economy is “in shambles,” he added. “Eritrea has been steadily sliding downward.”

Eritrean activists and outside analysts routinely compare the country to North Korea. "The stories may sound out of this earth," Mikael said. "It's an absolute police state."

Between those mounting frustrations and the steady drip of outside information through their radios, Eritreans' dissatisfaction is mounting, outside analysts and activists say. None of them were surprised by the reported siege Monday.

“People were fed up. Things are going from bad to worse. There’s no hope," said Biniam Simon of Radio Erena. "Everybody knew this could come one day.”

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