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Wednesday, 19 September, 2001, 17:31 GMT 18:31 UK
More reformists held in Eritrea
President Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea
Afewerki is trying to discredit reformers
By Alex Last in Asmara

There have been further arrests of political reformists in Eritrea, following the arrest of six of their colleagues on Tuesday, diplomatic sources say.

The latest arrests include the former Minister of Information, Beraki Gebreselassie. Two others who are wanted are known to be currently out of the country.

Another, Mesfin Hagos, the popular governor of the southern region, is due to arrive from the US where he has been receiving medical treatment.

Beach scene in Eritrea
Eritreans do not seem ready to protest

If they do come home they will face possible imprisonment.

On Tuesday the authorities arrested the first batch of six, including former generals who served in the country's army and announced the closure of privately run pro-reform newspapers.

Highly critical

All those detained belong to the group of 15 former top-ranking members of the ruling party, including ministers and generals who first signed an open letter in May, which was highly critical of President Isaias Eferwerki and his ruling party.

But since then one, Mohammed Blata has publicly repented for his criticism and signature of the open letter, and so he was not detained.

The government newspaper Hadas Eritrea, the only newspaper now allowed to publish, contained a short statement about the arrests.

It said: "The government of Eritrea had taken action against those who had committed crimes against the sovereignty, security and peace of the nation."

Treason

If the statement is taken literally, then it seems the reformers could be accused of treason, a crime which in Eritrea can carry the death penalty.

The statement did not give names nor specify how many have been detained.

Eritrean soldiers
Relations strained since reformists criticised war with Ethiopia

There is still concern about the whereabouts and condition of those who have been arrested.

Several of the reformers are known to have health problems.

The former Trade and Industry Minister, Haile Woldensae, suffers from diabetes. Another detainee, General Ogbe Abraha, suffers from acute asthma.

Eritrea diaspora

Privately, the diplomatic community is very unhappy about the arrests and the closure of the private press.

Only last week there was a partnership meeting between the government and the international donors during which their concerns over the need for democratic reform were raised.

The reaction of the Eritrean diaspora will also be important as they traditionally pour money into the country estimated at $300m per year, and pay a 2% income tax.

The ruling party, the People's Front for Democracy, has recently sent emissaries abroad to whip up enthusiasm for the government and to disavow the reformers.

In Eritrea, public reaction remains muted with no public displays of support for the reformers.

See also:

31 May 01 | Africa
Dissent surfaces in Eritrea
11 Nov 99 | Africa
Fall of the Wall echoes in Africa
17 Apr 01 | Africa
Eritrean minister speaks out
30 Oct 00 | Africa
Eritrea confronts the future
18 Sep 01 | Africa
Eritrea silences critics
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