Two British Council employees arrested in Eritrea

ASMARA Thu Jul 12, 2007 4:38pm BST

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ASMARA (Reuters) - Eritrea has arrested two British Council employees in Asmara, the Red Sea state said on Thursday, and also accused a British diplomat of breaking its laws.

"Only one is (still) in detention. I don't want to enter into details. The law has been violated," Ambassador Petros Fessahazion, head of the European desk at Eritrea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Reuters by telephone.

"If there is an infraction of the law, we can't stay without reacting just for the sake of having bilateral relations."

A British Council spokesman said both its employees where Eritrean nationals, and said it would be unhelpful to speculate on the reasons behind the arrests.

"We are concerned about this and we are working closely with the British embassy and are also in contact with the Eritreans," the spokesman said. "We believe it is a misunderstanding we are trying to resolve."

Media reports have also said Eritrea stopped a British diplomat based in neighbouring Ethiopia from leaving Eritrea following a visit, but Asmara dismissed that.

"The British diplomat has already left the country. This British diplomat violated our laws. They told us that in good faith they didn't know (he broke the law)," Petros said.

He declined to say which laws the diplomat had broken.

Diplomats routinely complain about travel and visa restrictions in the country.

Eritrea has found itself at increasing odds with many Western nations over their support for its arch-foe Ethiopia, analysts say, but Eritrea denies that. The two nations fought a 1998-2000 border war that killed some 70,000 people.

In March, five Europeans linked to the British embassy in Addis Ababa were freed in Eritrea after being kidnapped 12 days earlier by gunmen near the border in remote northeast Ethiopia.

Ethiopia said the Europeans -- three British men, one Italian-British woman and one French woman -- had been victims of Eritrean "terrorism", while Asmara accused Addis Ababa of "manipulating" the kidnap saga for its own political ends.

(Additional reporting by Paul Majendie in London)

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