The US embassy in Asmara has issued a warning about protests and gunfire in the Eritrean capital, though details of the rare bout of unrest remain unclear.
Eritrea is one of the world’s most repressive countries and demonstrations are uncommon, but the embassy had on Tuesday issued a statement about “gunfire at several locations in Asmara due to protests”.
“The Embassy advises US citizens to avoid the downtown area where protests appear to be more prevalent. Streets in the downtown area may be closed, and police continue to maintain a significant presence,” the embassy said.
Video footage circulating on social media, purported to be from Asmara, showed people running down streets as rapid gunfire boomed.
In a posting on Twitter, Eritrea’s Information minister Yemane Gebremeskel said a “small demonstration by one school in Asmara” was “dispersed without any casualty”. In an angrily dismissive message, he insisted it was “hardly breaking news” which had claimed no casualties.
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Eritrean website, Asmarino, said the protest was triggered by government plans to nationalise a private Islamic school, with pro-government site Madote saying it is part of an ambition to “secularise” the country’s education.
Contacted by AFP on Wednesday, Eritrea’s representative to the African Union (AU) declined to comment on the protests or the government’s response to them.
The government of President Isaias Afeworki maintains tight control over Eritrea, which has no independent media and is ranked second-to-last in terms of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders.
The country is among Africa’s poorest, and hundreds of thousands of people have fled in recent years because of poor job prospects and a national service programme that consigns young people into government work for little or no pay.
Tiny Eritrea sees national service as essential to protect itself from its much larger neighbour Ethiopia, from which it seceded in 1993. Five years later, the two countries fought a costly two-year-long border war that left tens of thousands dead.
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