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Friday, 2 November, 2001, 23:05 GMT
Eritrea critic denies conspiracy
Ex-Eritrean Defence Minister Mesfin Haggos
Mesfin says Eritreans are afraid to speak even to their friends
The former Eritrean Defence Minister, Mesfin Haggos, has denied claims that an open letter to the president calling for political reforms in the country was designed to destabilise the government.

Last month the authorities accused the pro-democracy campaigners who signed the letter of being involved in illegal activities which they said had endangered the country.

It then embarked on a clampdown, arresting signatories inside the country and closing down the independent press.

President Isaias Afewerki
President Isaias Aferwerki "refused to discuss the letter"
In an interview with the BBC's Network Africa programme, Mr Mesfin said the intention of the letter was to ask the president to convene a meeting of the ruling party in order to begin a debate on democratic reforms.

Mr Mesfin, who was out of the country at the time of the clampdown and is now in exile, said President Isaias Aferwerki was not prepared to discuss their request.

The government's website Shaebia has accused the dissidents of organising clandestine cells inside the country and in the military.

But the former defence minister said: " I have never contacted people in the army. I know our country's sovereignty depends on the unity of the army. That unity must be sustained."

Detainees

The government has now detained without charge more than 20 people, including two employees of the US embassy in Asmara.

Mr Mesfin said he has found it impossible to know the whereabouts or condition of the detainees, saying it was very difficult for Eritreans to speak "freely let alone on the telephone".

The government's website accused the detainees of treachery and of co-operating with opposition groups supported by Ethiopia.

The European Union last month recalled its ambassadors from Eritrea in protest at the crackdown.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
BBC talks to Mesfin Haggos, ex-Eritrean minister
" I don't think there was a conspiracy. We were asking him for a democratic dialogue"
See also:

08 Oct 01 | Africa
Eritrea denies preparing for war
03 Oct 01 | Africa
Eritrean dissident set for return
02 Oct 01 | Africa
Eritrea plays down diplomatic row
21 Sep 01 | Africa
Concern over Eritrea detainees
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