Eritrea has arrested two local employees of the U.S. embassy in Asmara on charges of human trafficking, the government said on Thursday — the latest in a series of diplomatic difficulties between the two countries.
“These parties are accountable to the law for their illicit engagement in activities of human trafficking and, as such, like all other wrongdoers, they are being held under custody for their offence,” Information Minister Ali Abdu Ahmed said.
The minister, speaking to Reuters in Nairobi by telephone, would not give more details of the incident.
Several weeks ago Eritrea’s rebel movement-turned-government asked the U.S. government’s overseas development agency, USAID, to leave without any public explanation.
The two countries are also still at odds over the arrest in 2001 of two other local employees of the embassy.
The U.S. mission in Asmara would not confirm or deny the latest arrests. A spokesman added that the two employees arrested in 2001 were still being held without charge despite Washington’s repeated demands for their release or trial.
Abdu said Eritrea, which lies in the Horn of Africa, had a sovereign obligation to act in its national interests. “Like in any other sovereign states, citizens, irrespective of where they work, are accountable to the laws of the land,” he said.
Arrests after U.S. criticism
A website run by Eritrean exiles, awate.com, said the embassy employees had been arrested in August.
It named them as Fitwi Gezae, “webmaster of the U.S. embassy,” and Biniam Girmay, a “facility management assistant.”
Awate.com said the pair arrested in 2001, Alli Alamin and Kiflom Ghebremichael, were “rumored to have translated for the embassy the documents of Eritrean opposition groups.”
The employees, from the embassy’s political and economic affairs office, were detained shortly after the United States criticized Eritrea for cracking down on political dissent.
When Washington demanded their release in 2002, Eritrea accused U.S. authorities of using the CIA to try to overthrow its government during the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia.
Although Eritrea has not given reasons for its request that USAID leave, diplomats speculate it is upset with the lead role taken by USAID in the local aid community, or by a unilateral aid announcement it made in June.
The Eritrean government has a history of sensitive relations with the foreign aid community due to its desire for self-reliance and resentment at what it sees as the international community’s favoritism for neighboring Ethiopia.