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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 April, 2003, 21:05 GMT 22:05 UK
Eritrea's leader defends curbs
The president of Eritrea has spoken for the first time of his reason for closing the private press in his country and detaining independent journalists.

In a rare interview, Isaias Afewerki described the detained journalists as spies and agents of what he called "external interference".

Isaias Afewerki
Afewerki dismissed foreign concerns about press freedom

Human rights groups have been campaigning for the release of some 18 journalists since 2001.

Last year, Amnesty International accused Eritrea of unlawfully detaining dozens of political prisoners and journalists.

Earlier in April, Reporters Without Borders urged the European Union to withhold aid until the journalists were released.

Eritrea, it said, was the only country in Africa without a privately owned news media and, the international media watch-dog added, foreign journalists were not free to operate there.

"Enough is enough"

But the president told a French radio station that the journalists had been bribed to cause division in the country.

"You cannot say a spy is a journalist," he told Radio France Internationale.

"In the middle of the war we had to check them. We had to say enough is enough."

Mr Afewerki also used the interview to talk about the decision early this month by the United Nations Boundary Commission to declare the disputed and highly symbolic village of Badme as belonging to Eritrea.

The bloody two-year war over this piece of territory started in 1998, killing and displacing thousands of people on both sides.

But Mr Afewerki told the interviewer that as far as he was concerned the chapter was closed.

Ethiopia has, however, opposed the border commission ruling.

"The political attitude of the rulers in Ethiopia is still the problem," said Mr Afewerki as he accused the Ethiopian Government of "territorial ambitions and hegemony".

The official demarcation of the border between the two countries is due to start in three months' time.


SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Eritrea
05 Mar 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Eritrea
04 Mar 03  |  Country profiles
Horn border row worries UN
04 Apr 03  |  Africa


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