Eritrean refugees protest in support of renegade soldiers

ADDIS ABABA Sat Feb 2, 2013 6:43pm GMT

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ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia demonstrated on Saturday in support of soldiers who forced state media in the Eritrean capital Asmara to call for all political prisoners to be freed.

Dissident Eritrean soldiers with tanks stormed the information ministry on January 21 and obliged the director general of state television to appeal for the prisoners' release.

Between 5,000 and 10,000 political prisoners are held in the country of 6 million people, the U.N. human rights chief said last year, accusing Eritrea of torture and summary executions.

Eritrean opposition activists in neighbouring Ethiopia said there was growing dissent within the army, Africa's second biggest, especially over economic hardship.

Exiled Eritreans stormed embassies in London and Rome last week to express support for the mutinous soldiers.

Eritrea has been led by the reclusive president Isaias Afewerki, 66, for two decades. Although the renegade soldiers did not go as far as to demand his overthrow, the protest was a rare glimpse of public discontent in one of Africa's most secretive states. Asmara has dismissed the incident at the information ministry as an isolated criminal act.

U.N. officials at the Mai Aini refugee camp in northern Ethiopia, which houses around 20,000 Eritrean refugees, said around 3000 protesters had gathered to show their solidarity with the soldiers who raided the ministry.

"We are here to express our full support for the initiative of the army, but also to protest against what has been consistent arrests and killings of those opposing the regime," said Mohamed Ali Salah, a 31-year-old former soldier who crossed the border to Ethiopia over three years ago.

"We have information that ... the leader of this incident has been killed, and others arrested," Salah added, citing sources in Asmara.

The fate of the dissident soldiers is not known and statements about the political situation inside Eritrea are hard to corroborate. However, dissent inside the one-party state is typically dealt with harshly.

More than 1,000 Eritreans cross over to Ethiopia and a similar number to Sudan each month to escape conscription and unlimited service in the army, according to figures from the United Nations refugee agency.

On a strategic strip of mountainous land along the Red Sea, Eritrea has more soldiers per person than any country except North Korea.

(Editing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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