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Last Updated: Monday, 8 November, 2004, 09:38 GMT
Eritrean jail deaths 'overblown'
Map of Eritrea
Eritrea has denied reports that 20 people were killed in unrest at a prison holding alleged draft dodgers.

Information Minister Ali Abdu told Reuters news agency the claims were false and were part of a "smear campaign" by former enemy Ethiopia.

But he later told AFP news agency the number of deaths had been exaggerated.

A website run by Eritreans abroad said violence broke out at the prison after it became overcrowded with people suspected of avoiding military service.

Military service is compulsory; 10% of the country is said to be in the army.

The website asmarino.com said security forces in the capital Asmara had arrested many young people suspected of dodging military service.

They had been taken to a detention centre at Adi Abieto outside the city, the website added.

The jail was so full that a major wall collapsed, killing and injuring several people, the report went on.

"Shooting started and soon after there was utter chaos. Unconfirmed reports say the guards started shooting, killing over 20 detainees and wounding over 100," the website added.

Tensions high

Ali Abdu said of the report: "It is not only false, it is a smear campaign. There was no incident. It is totally baseless. These [allegations are made by] agents of the Ethiopian regime".

He said security forces had been carrying out what he called routine monitoring measures to identify lawless elements.

But he denied draft dodgers were being targeted.

"There are normal security procedures. The law is applied for all, to find the few lawless... We have these routine operations for the national interest," he told Reuters.

However, he later changed his story, telling AFP news agency by telephone: "I can't say there were no incidents, but to say that some 20 people had died is totally exaggerated."

Every Eritrean man is expected to serve for 18 months, says the BBC's Jonah Fisher, a former correspondent in Asmara.

But regional instability and war has meant many serve more than seven years - on less than $25 a month.

Eritrea is currently experiencing acute economic difficulties and is politically isolated on the Horn of Africa, our correspondent adds.

Borders are closed, and tensions are high with both its much larger neighbours Ethiopia and Sudan.

UN accuses Horn rivals
05 May 04 |  Africa
Country profile: Eritrea
16 Jul 04 |  Country profiles

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