Disillusioned Eritrean troops in stand-off outside ministry

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RENEGADE Eritrean soldiers with tanks laid siege to the information ministry yesterday and forced state media to call for political prisoners to be freed.

But they did not go as far as to call for the overthrow of the government of one of Africa’s most secretive states, which is accused of human rights abuses.

State media went off air after the call for prisoners to be freed. One western diplomat in neighbouring Ethiopia said other buildings might have been seized by soldiers too.

Eritrea has been led by Isaias Afewerki, 66, for some two decades, since it broke from bigger neighbour Ethiopia.

Eritrean opposition activists exiled in Ethiopia said there was growing dissent within the Eritrean military, especially over economic hardship.

Accusing Eritrea of torture and summary executions last year, the United Nations human rights chief estimated that 5,000-10,000 political prisoners were being held in the country of about six million people.

The gold-producing state, on a strip of mountainous land along the Red Sea coast, is one of the most opaque countries on the continent and restricts access to foreign reporters. Despite its relatively small population, Eritrea has Africa’s second biggest army.

It broke from Ethiopia in 1991. The two countries fought a 1998-2000 war over a border that remains disputed. Relations between them are perennially strained, with Eritrea denying accusations it backs Ethiopian insurgents.

The UN Security Council imposed an embargo on Eritrea in 2009 over concerns its government was funding and arming al Shabaab rebels in neighbouring Somalia – charges it denied.