President IsaiasNAIROBI — Eritrea dismissed reports Saturday that a protest by mutinous soldiers seeking political reform, a rare challenge to the authoritarian regime of the Horn of Africa nation, was a coup attempt.

In the first formal response since soldiers briefly seized the information ministry on Monday in the capital Asmara, Eritrea’s ambassador to the African Union Girma Asmerom said that reports of a coup had been “wishful thinking”.

Some opposition groups had initially said the protest — which ended peacefully after a few hours when soldiers agreed to leave the ministry — had aimed to topple the hardline regime of President Issaias Afeworki.

“All over the world an armed, crazy, stupid and terrorist individual or group can take stupid actions such as kidnapping of individuals or taking hostages by raiding government and private institutions and offices,” a statement read.

Diplomats confirm protest

“Such isolated incidents, which frequently occur in the West, are considered terrorist acts. I don?t understand why in Africa they are considered coup d’etats. It is the highest form of double standard and hypocrisy.”

European diplomats in Asmara reported that tanks and troops were seen Monday at the ministry complex, the site of a former hilltop fort that towers over the highland capital.

Opposition parties are banned and those that challenge Issaias — who has ruled the Horn of Africa nation with an iron grip since independence in 1993 — are jailed without trial, often in the harshest of conditions.

“Rest assured that the president is healthy, and Eritrea is a peaceful country,” Girma added, boasting that there would “never be a coup” as Eritrea is a “society built on trust.”

Wave of arrests

The statement made no mention of reports by opposition websites on Friday that Asmara had launched a purge of top leaders following the reported mutiny.

The reports, including by and, could not be confirmed independently, although Eritreans in the capital Asmara said there had been numerous arrests.

If confirmed, the arrests would echo the regime’s political purge of 2001, when 15 top officials who wrote an open letter calling for democratic reforms — dubbed the Group of 15, or G-15 — were jailed or fled into exile.

Several of the G-15 — accused of treason although they have never been tried — are believed to have since died in brutal prison conditions.

Impoverished Eritrea falls below North Korea on the Press Freedom Index of the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, ranking last out of 179 countries.

Independent media were shut down after Issaias’ draconian purge in 2001, while Eritrea expelled the last registered foreign correspondent in 2010.

Source: AFP 26 January 2013