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Tuesday, 2 October, 2001, 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK
Eritrea plays down diplomatic row
President Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea
The EU criticised Mr Afewerki for political repression
By Alex Last in Asmara

Eritrea's Government has explained for the first time why they expelled the Italian Ambassador to Eritrea, Antonio Bandini, who has now left for Rome.

His expulsion was ordered on Friday, just hours after he had led a delegation of European Union representatives to deliver to the Eritrean government a letter of reproach from the EU, an act known in diplomatic terms as a demarche.

It is not about Italy and Eritrea, it is about one man

Eritrean official Semere Russom
In the letter the EU criticised Eritrea for human rights violations, following the arrest of 11 dissidents, the closure of the private press and the detention of at least eight journalists.

Semere Russom, director of European affairs at the Eritrean foreign ministry, told BBC News Online that Mr Bandini had been interfering in the internal politics of Eritrea which was incompatible with his diplomatic status.

The Italian ambassador, like several other western ambassadors, had contact with the dissidents whilst they were still in office.

Since their dismissal, all the ambassadors held one joint meeting to hear the dissidents postion. It is possible that these contacts were considered provocative and displeased the government.

Slap in face

However, since the expulsion took place shortly after the EU demarche, some diplomats are seeing it as a slap in the face to the EU as a whole.

Mr Semere was at pains to deny this, and reassure the EU.

Eritrean soldiers
The war in Eritrea has cost the country dear
"His expulsion was a personal matter, and was not linked to the presentation of the EU demarche," he said.

He stressed that "Eritrea's historic relations and ties of friendhip with Italy should not be affected. It is not about Italy and Eritrea, it is about one man."

Mr Semere said that the Eritrean Government had asked Italy some two to three weeks ago to recall the ambassador discreetly, but they had not responded in time.

Aid risk

The economic implications for Eritrea are considerable.

The reaction of the Italian Government is crucial, as the EU is likely to take its lead from Rome on this issue.

Many Eritreans are dependent on aid
Italy is the largest single donor to Eritrea, a country which is asking for hundreds of millions of dollars to recover from its war with Ethiopia.

Italy and Eritrea were scheduled to discuss the next three years of Italian development aid later this month. It is unlikely to take place now. 

A week before the clampdown began, Eritrea has been asking for $197m for its crucial demobilisation and re-integration programme alone.

According to diplomatic sources, pledges at a donor conference three weeks ago were about $60m short of the target.

Previously, there were even expectations that Italy might contribute more to make up some of the shortfall.

Bad timing

A concerted hard-line from the EU countries could lead to a freezing of almost all development projects in Eritrea.

This would leave Eritrea's demobilisation programme, and dozens of development projects, in considerable trouble. Though it is unlikely that humanitarian assistance will end.

From a diplomatic point of view, the timing of the expulsion could not have been worse, as representatives from the EU countries were meeting in Brussels to discuss African affairs.

All eyes are now turned to Rome and Brussels to await reaction.

The BBC's Alex Last reports from Asmara
explains the background to the diplomatic row
See also:

02 Oct 01 | Africa
Italy expels Eritrea's ambassador
01 Oct 01 | Africa
Eritrea expels Italian ambassador
21 Sep 01 | Africa
Concern over Eritrea detainees
19 Sep 01 | Africa
More reformists held in Eritrea
18 Sep 01 | Africa
Eritrea silences critics
31 May 01 | Africa
Dissent surfaces in Eritrea
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