Protests erupted in the Eritrean capital of Asmara on Tuesday, prompting a violent crackdown in which dozens of people were killed, an opposition group reported on Wednesday. The government downplayed the reports.
The protests began on early Tuesday when crowds gathered near a private Islamic school in Asmara, according to Awate, a U.S.-based news website that is opposed to the Eritrean government. It said members of the school’s board were arrested after refusing to change its curriculum.
The small East African nation is one of the most repressive and closed countries in the world, with all free press banned and thousands of political opponents imprisoned indefinitely. Specific details about Tuesday’s events could not be independently confirmed.
The Awate news website reported that the protest grew around noon, after which the security forces began beating people and students started throwing stones at them. Security forces opened fire when the protests spread to the center of the capital.
Videos circulating on social media showed people running away while the sound of gunfire could be heard in the background. The Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization, an opposition group based in Ethiopia, claimed that at least 28 people were killed and 100 more were injured.
It was not possible to independently confirm the figures, but Tuesday’s events caused the U.S. Embassy in Asmara to issue a security message for American citizens in Eritrea. With the exception of travel warnings, it was the embassy’s first security message since an army mutiny in January 2013.
“The U.S. Embassy has received reports of gunfire at several locations in Asmara due to protests,” the embassy said. “The Embassy advises U.S. citizens to avoid the downtown area where protests appear to be more prevalent. Streets in the downtown area may be closed, and police continue to maintain a significant presence.”
The Eritrean government, however, downplayed the events and claimed that no one was killed. “[Journalist Martin Plaut] is a pathological liar,” Information Minister Yemane Meskel said on Twitter. “Small demonstration by one school in Asmara dispersed without any casualty, hardly breaking news.”
Activists told Al Jazeera that the protests began in the predominantly-Muslim neighbourhood of Akriya, where the Diaa Islamic School of Asmara is located. They said the school had been ordered to ban the headscarf and halt religious education.
Eritrea, which is often called the “North Korea of Africa,” has long been condemned for alleged human rights abuses, which includes torture, enforced disappearances, and mandatory national service. It has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee the African country.
The Eritrean government de-registered all privately-owned media in September 2001 after a group of politicians called for reform and democratic dialogue. Those involved, as well as a number of journalists, were arrested within days and they remain in custody without charge.
State-run media now strictly controls the flow of information. A recent report from Amnesty International said arbitrary detention without charge continues to be the norm for thousands of political prisoners. Security forces have also been accused of unlawful killings.
Eritrea gained independence in 1991 when it broke off from Ethiopia. The 1997 constitution provides for a range of political parties, but it was never fully implemented and the country is effectively a one-party state, ruled by 71-year-old Isaias Afwerki since its independence from Ethiopia.
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