FACTBOX: Key facts about Eritrea

Wed Dec 23, 2009 12:33pm EST

(Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions on Eritrea on Wednesday because of allegations by council members that the Horn of Africa state is aiding Islamist insurgents in Somalia.

Here are some key facts about the country:

* THE ECONOMY:

-- Eritrea's agriculture-based economy has suffered from irregular rains in recent years and from the global economic downturn. In October, President Isaias Afwerki told Reuters in an interview programs were in place to move the economy away from its dependence on rainfall, but that "it will take a long time." [ID:nLL474000]

-- Earlier this month, an International Monetary Fund (IMF) report said the economy had sharply contracted in 2008, while inflation surged to double digits. Humanitarian groups fear this led to widespread hunger and food shortages, though travel restrictions have limited their ability to verify estimates.

-- Better rains during 2009 will likely see a rebound, the IMF said, with growth expected to be around 3.5 percent this year. But it warned that the exchange rate was overvalued and that domestic and external debt levels were unsustainable.

-- Remittances from the diaspora in Europe, the United States, the Middle East and other African nations are Eritrea's biggest source of foreign exchange, but the global economic crisis has slowed the flow of funds.

-- Eritrea is seen on the threshold of a mining boom with more than a dozen foreign firms now exploring or about to explore in a country that geologists say has vast unexploited potential. But experts say the government will not see a return on its investment in the sector before 2012 and Isaias has dismissed suggestions a mining boom was about to boost the economy and change the lives of most Eritreans.

-- Trade is very limited in Eritrea and Asmara's main brewery often lacks glue to stick the labels to its beer bottles, locals say. Industrious Asmarinos make common items like stoves, crucifixes and hair combs out of scrap metal from Soviet tanks rotting in the capital since independence.

* SOME HISTORY:

-- Eritrea's sense of tough self-reliance -- traditionally shunning outside aid and assistance - was forged during its 30-year independence struggle against an Ethiopian military bankrolled by both the United States, then the Soviet Union.

-- Eritrea feels that its plight during "the Struggle" was ignored by the international community, which it accuses of turning its back on decades of persecution and brutality at the hands of occupying forces -- from colonial power Italy to Second World War liberator Britain and fierce regional rival Ethiopia.

-- A 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia -- Washington's chief ally in the Horn of Africa -- that killed at least 70,000 people, combined with mandatory national service and ongoing saber rattling with Djibouti, Yemen and others has left Eritreans with the sense that they are always on a war footing.

-- Since independence in 1993, critics of Isaias say the former rebel has used the country's violent history and simmering regional hostilities as an excuse to curb civil liberties and shut down any independent media. Others say he is a visionary leading a proud nation that has bucked African trends of endemic corruption and ethnically-fueled bloodshed.

* COUNTRY DETAILS:

POPULATION: Hard figures are difficult to come by, but the population is estimated at between 3.5 and 5 million.

ETHNIC GROUPS: Eritrea is home to several ethnic groups. Prominent among them are Tigrinya, Tigrayan, Saho and Afar.

CAPITAL: Asmara, which sits at some 2,300 m (7,546 ft) above sea level.

LANGUAGE: English and Tigrinya are widely spoken in Asmara and the highlands in general, as well as Italian among older Eritreans. Arabic is widely spoken in the lowlands, toward the border with Sudan and along the country's Red Sea coast.

RELIGION: The population is split between various Muslim and Christian groups. The government has not yet implemented a 1997 constitution that provides for religious freedom, and in 2002 it forced religious groups to register. A recent U.S. report said hundreds of people had been detained in 2009 for their beliefs.

LAND MASS: 117,600 square km (45,406 square miles).

(Writing by Jeremy Clarke; editing by Daniel Wallis and Philippa Fletcher)

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