NAIROBI – Eritrean Army tanks besieged the information ministry in central Asmara on Monday after some 200 mutineers seized the building to call for political reform, diplomatic and diaspora sources said Monday.
No shots were fired and the rest of the city appeared calm, the diplomats added, although multiple rumors swirled on social media, with opposition sites claiming violence while progovernment supporters in Asmara reported calm.
“The Ministry of Information is under siege,” a diplomat said.
Amanuel Ghirmai, an Eritrean journalist in Paris for independent Radio Erena, said that army mutineers stormed the hilltop ministry — which towers over the capital of the Red Sea state — early Monday.
They reportedly ordered newscasters at the government-run television and radio station — the only source of media for the authoritarian state — to read a statement that they will implement the country’s constitution.
The statement also reportedly ordered the release of prisoners of conscience. “We do not know who is leading the situation,” Amanuel said, adding that he had spoken to sources in Asmara.
Britain’s Foreign Office updated its travel advice Monday to say it had received reports of “unusual military movements in and around Asmara,” without giving further details.
Multiple sources reported that one of those held inside the ministry was the daughter of Eritrean President Isaias Afworki, who has ruled the Horn of Africa nation with an iron grip from independence in 1993, following an epic 30-year liberation war from neighboring Ethiopia.
The reports were not possible to confirm independently, and all calls to government officials were not answered.
Impoverished Eritrea beats even North Korea to rank last out of 179 countries on the Press Freedom Index of the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
All independent media was shut down after Isaias launched a draconian purge in 2001, while Eritrea expelled the last registered foreign correspondent in 2010.
However, Eritrean expatriates who had spoken to compatriots in Asmara said they could confirm reports that troops had been deployed at the information ministry, and that state television Eri-TV had stopped broadcasting.
All Eritrea’s public media are recorded and broadcast from the ministry.
“The local transmission has been cut, the only satellite signal is airing some archives,” Amanuel added.
“Local radio and TV appear to have been shut down; we are seeking further information,” Britain’s Foreign Office added.
Progovernment supporters in Asmara dismissed what they called “rumormongering” and said that all was calm.
However, opposition website Awate.com, based in the U.S. but with close connections inside Eritrea, reported that the mutineers were young soldiers, but that “senior officers are refusing to take action to suppress the uprising.”
“There are reports that the presidential office and the Asmara airport are surrounded by tanks,” it said. “It is not clear whether these are regime loyalists or supporters of the young officers and soldiers.”
Opposition parties are banned and those who challenge the regime are jailed without trial, often in the harshest of conditions.