Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia call for democratic rule

Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki
Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki

* Hundreds of refugees call for end of conscription

* Urge sanctions against Eritrea

By Aaron Maasho (Reuters) – Hundreds of Eritrean refugees gathered in the Ethiopian capital on Wednesday to call for democratic rule in Eritrea, which thousands have fled in recent years citing rights abuses.

Under banners that read “Yes for democratic change”, around 1,600 Eritreans met to decry what they described as repressive rule under President Isaias Afewerki, who has led the country since it won independence from Ethiopia in 1991.

The refugees also called for an end to unlimited military service in the country, with one of Africa’s largest armies fed by a yearly conscription of men and women aged 15 to 45.

Some analysts blame the prolonged service for Eritrea’s refugee exodus which now amounts to thousands every year, according to the United Nations.

“We are here to highlight the injustices in our country. We want an end to dictatorial rule,” Kibrom Sibhatu, head of the Eritrean Urban Refugees Association, told journalists.

“There are 60,000 Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia and all fled because of crimes carried out by the dictatorship,” he said.

Berhane, a 35-year-old who fled his country four years ago, called the military service programme “modern-day slavery”.

“They (government) have ruined the lives of this generation. The international community has to realise that those who fled the country are only political refugees, not economic,” he said.

Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia twenty years ago after a 30-year war, but the two sides fought another two-year conflict in 1998 over disputed territory.

“The national service programme declares 18 months of service, but they maintain an unlimited programme claiming the war with Ethiopia has not ended,” 33-year old Solomon Ghirmay told Reuters.

“The government has waged conflicts with many of Eritrea’s neighbours. I want the international community to impose more sanctions on the regime,” Solomon added.

One participant said Ethiopian authorities had refused to grant them permission to hold protests in front of the African Union headquarters, where Eritrea sent this year its first delegation since the war ended in 2000. (Editing by George Obulutsa)