By KEVIN J KELLEY
Relations between the United States and Eritrea are deteriorating rapidly, with Washington now threatening to add Asmara to a list of sponsors of terrorism.
The US also recently shut down Eritrea’s consulate in California.
Eritrean President Issayas Afewerki has reacted angrily to the Bush administration’s moves.
“Its strategy of monopoly and dominance through fomenting confrontation among peoples is leading the world to a dangerous path,” President Afewerki declared during a two-hour interview on state television last week.
Jendayi Frazer, the State Department’s top Africa policymaker, had told reporters two days earlier that the US might brand Eritrea a state sponsor of terrorism because it is allegedly arming insurgents in Somalia. The Bush administration has accused these Islamist forces of harbouring al Qaeda operatives who took part in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
We cannot tolerate... their support for terror activity, particularly in Somalia,” Ms Frazer said in regard to Eritrean government officials.
If designated a sponsor of terrorism, Eritrea would join such US arch-enemies as Iran, Cuba and North Korea. Inclusion on that list results in a country being hit with a variety of financial sanctions as well as the loss of all non-emergency US aid. American delegates to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are also obligated to oppose loans by the Bretton Woods institutions to the targeted countries.
Eritrea can still avoid these punishments by ending its support for the Islamist militants in Somalia, Ms Frazer noted.
She said information gathered by US intelligence is consistent with what United Nations experts reported last month. UN monitors charged that Eritrea has shipped “a huge quantity of arms” to the Somali insurgents. The weapons are said to include surface-to-air missiles and explosive devices.
But many observers believe Eritrea is helping the Somali guerrillas as a way of hurting its longstanding foe, Ethiopia, which invaded and occupied Somalia late last year. Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a bloody two-year border war that ended in a stalemate in 2000.
Ms Frazer said Washington had decided to close the Eritrean consulate in Oakland, California, in retaliation for Eritrea’s denial of visas to US diplomats and its insistence on inspecting diplomatic pouches containing secret documents.
The United States has also accused Eritrean officials of impeding relief workers and expropriating food aid shipments.
“We’ve watched them throw out USAid,” she said, referring to the United States Agency for International Development. “We’ve watched them take the food out of the warehouses of UN organisations.”
Washington has further complained about government repression of Eritrean dissidents.
But Ms Frazer also acknowledged that Eritrea’s behaviour is “not all bad.” She did not dispute a reporter’s suggestion that Eritrea has helped quell violence in eastern Sudan.
Eritrea is also supporting some of the rebel groups in Darfur that are fighting for greater autonomy from authorities in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. And the United States holds the Sudan government primarily responsible for the carnage in Darfur.
But the Assistant Secretary of State for African affairs added at her recent press briefing that the Darfur rebels “are also attacking civilians and are a part of the problem in Darfur.”
She urged Eritrea to help bring the rebels to the bargaining table.
Relations between Washington and Asmara are complicated in other ways as well.
Eritrea was one of the few nations in Africa to support the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. At the same time, President Afewerki noted in his interview last week that the United States had never supported Eritrea during the course of its 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia.