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World News

Factbox: Ethiopia's reclusive neighbour Eritrea

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Reports that Eritrea has sent troops over the border into Ethiopia to help fight rebellious forces in Tigray have fuelled fears of wider instability in the Horn of Africa.

Both nations’ governments deny any Eritrean involvement in the fighting which started on Nov. 4 between Ethiopia’s military and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Following are some facts about Eritrea:

HEAVILY MILITARISED

With around 6 million people, Eritrea has a huge military for its size, of about 200,000 troops, according to Janes, an agency for open-source defence intelligence.

Many are conscripts and it is unclear how many are on active duty. “The force remains a defensive and rather static one, with low mobility and readiness levels,” Janes said.

Almost all men and unmarried women over 18 are obliged to do government service and around 20% go into the military, Human Rights Watch says.

Most of Eritrea’s military hardware is made up of Soviet-era systems, the CIA World Factbook says.

ALL-POWERFUL PRESIDENT

Power is centralised in President Isaias Afwerki, a former guerrilla leader who led his country to independence from Ethiopia in 1993 and has ruled ever since.

Any Eritrean involvement in Ethiopia would be driven by his priorities, which have up to now focused on maintaining power, heightening regional influence and defending territory.

Reports on his actions and plans are hard to verify. Independent media have been shut down for two decades. His government jails dissidents. There have been no elections.

Critics dub Eritrea the “North Korea of Africa” for its pariah status, which the government blames on past United Nations sanctions and Western hostility and smears.

RELATIONS WITH ETHIOPIA

Isaias signed a peace deal with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018, ending two decades of hostilities that began with a 1998-2000 border war.

But grievances over that conflict still run deep. Relations are dire between Isaias and the TPLF, who dominated Ethiopia’s government for nearly three decades and ruled with increasing authoritarianism before Abiy came to power.

One analyst warned that Isaias may also not end up being the most reliable ally for Abiy. “(He) is one of the most authoritarian leaders on the continent. He is also one of the most erratic and unpredictable,” said Johnnie Carson, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state now at the Washington-based think tank United States Institute of Peace.

REGIONAL RELATIONS

Other states in the region have accused Eritrea of interfering in their affairs in the past - accusations that it has denied.

The United Nations imposed an arms embargo, asset freezes, and travel bans on Eritrea in 2009 over accusations that it was supporting al Shabaab Islamist militants in Somalia. That embargo was lifted nine years later as Eritrea moved to normalise ties with Somalia and made its pact with Ethiopia.

Also in 2018, Eritrea and its Red Sea neighbour Djibouti agreed to normalise ties a decade after a border dispute led to brief clashes.

Before their deal, Ethiopia regularly accused Eritrea of incursions and interference, including support for separatists in its northeastern Afar region.

The United Arab Emirates enjoys a decade-long relationship with Eritrea. The Emirates have a military base there used to help fight a war in Yemen, just across the Red Sea.

Reporting by Omar Mohammed and David Lewis; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Andrew Cawthorne

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