JOHANNESBURG – Calm reportedly returned to the capital of the small nation of Eritrea on Tuesday, a day after a group of soldiers apparently made a move against the East African country’s repressive regime by trying to take over the nation’s state broadcasting.
Two Eritrea experts said more than 100 dissident soldiers stormed the Ministry of Information in Asmara on Monday and began to read a statement on state TV saying the country’s 1997 constitution would be put into force. The soldiers also said all political prisoners would be freed, but the broadcast was cut off after only two sentences were read, said Leonard Vincent, author of the book “The Eritreans” and co-founder of a Paris-based Eritrean radio station.
By late afternoon Monday there were indications the soldiers’ attempt had failed. State television and radio had stopped broadcasting and a tank sat in front of the ministry building, said a Western diplomat in Eritrea. The broadcasting did not resume until late Monday night, according to diplomats.
But the Eritrean ambassador to South Africa, in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, denied that anything had happened in Eritrea, which lacks freedom of the press.
“There is no sign of mutiny or coup d’état or any other signs of uprising,” insisted Ambassador Salih Omar, adding that “rumours and speculation” came from Westerners who “have been attempting to destabilize the Eritrean government for a long time.”
Asmara returned to normal Tuesday, according to a diplomat and residents. Martin Plaut, a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in Britain, said: “My sources say all is quiet on the streets of Asmara now.”
The foreign press had scrambled to cover the latest events in the country, seeking sources and information on the microblogging site Twitter. Even diplomats in Asmara say they are trying to ascertain what happened on Monday.
The U.S. Embassy in Asmara said Monday night that it was “taking precautions and has alerted American citizens living here.”
The U.S. government’s relations with Eritrea became strained in 2001 as a result of a government crackdown against political dissidents, the closing of the independent press and limits on civil liberties, conditions that the State Department says have “persisted to this day.”
Isaias Afworki has ruled the country as president and head of the military since 1993.
If the power grab attempt by the dissident soldiers failed, they are likely in for severe punishments, Vincent and Plaut said.