Eritrea hits back at mutineers after they storm ministry

More than 100 dissident Eritrean soldiers stormed the ministry of information, holding ministry workers, including the daughter of the president, and demanded their country's 1997 constitution be put into force.

JOHANNESBURG // More than 100 dissident soldiers stormed the ministry of information in the small East African nation of Eritrea yesterday and read a statement on state TV saying the country's 1997 constitution would be put into force, two Eritrea experts said.

The soldiers held all of the ministry workers - including the daughter of the president - in a single room, said Leonard Vincent, author of the book The Eritreans and co-founder of a Paris-based Eritrean radio station.

The soldiers' broadcast on state TV said that the country's 1997 constitution would be reinstated and all political prisoners freed but the broadcast was cut off after only two sentences were read and the signal was off air for the rest of the day.

By afternoon there were indications the soldiers' attempt had failed. A tank sat in front of the ministry but the streets of the capital, Asmara, were quiet and no shots had been fired.

Mr Vincent stopped short of calling it a coup and said it was not clear if the action was a well-organised coup attempt or what he called a "kamikaze crash".

Later yesterday, government soldiers surrounded the ministry, an indication that the action by the dissident soldiers had failed, said Martin Plaut, a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in Britain.

"It looks like it's an isolated attempt by some soldiers who are completely frustrated by what is going on. But it wasn't done in a coordinated manner," Mr Plaut said. "They did seize the television station, they did manage to put this broadcast out, but the government is still functioning calmly. There is nothing on the streets."

Eritrea is an oppressive and isolated neighbour of Ethiopia and Sudan, situated on the Red Sea, which broke off from Ethiopia in the 1990s.

The United States government's relations with Eritrea became strained in 2001 as a result of a government crackdown against political dissidents, the closing of the independent press and limits on civil liberties.