U.N. slams Eritrea for Islamic militant support

Isaias Afewerki, president of Eritrea, in 2006 CBS News

UNITED NATIONS - The U.N. Security Council responded to appeals from east African leaders on Monday and approved tighter sanctions on Eritrea, which is accused of funding and arming terrorist groups in the volatile region.

The resolution was approved by a vote of 13-0, with Russia and China abstaining. Both countries are traditionally reluctant to impose sanctions.

Earlier on Monday, the leaders of Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia, along with senior officials from Kenya and Uganda, addressed the council by video conference from Addis Ababa and urged members to adopt a resolution strengthening sanctions imposed in 2009.

The resolution condemned Eritrea for violating the sanctions, which include an arms embargo, by continuing to support the Somali militant group al-Shabab and other opposition fighters. It demands that the government stop assisting armed groups trying to destabilize other countries in the region.

It called on all countries to exercise "vigilance" to prevent any diversions of funds from Eritrea's mining sector — a key source of income — to destabilize the Horn of Africa region in violation of sanctions.

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It also condemned the "diaspora tax" that the Eritrean government imposes on remittances from its nationals overseas and allegedly uses to fund armed opposition groups.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki had asked to address the council in October, when a draft resolution was first circulated by Gabon and Nigeria. The draft was watered down, and the council didn't issue an invitation to Isaias to come to New York until late last week, when it scheduled a vote on the revised resolution for Monday afternoon.

In two letters to the Security Council this weekend, Eritrea's Foreign Minister Osman Saleh said it was not "humanly possible" for the president to get to New York so quickly, and he accused members of rushing a vote. He blamed the United States for obstructing Isaias' initial request to address the council, which prevented him from having any influence on deliberations on the text.

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the Eritreans applied on Friday morning for 13 visas to come to the U.S. and that they were granted Saturday morning.

"They had ample time to be here," she said. "We have no explanation for their not being here except that they perhaps didn't like what was going to happen today."

U.N. experts monitoring the sanctions reported in July that Eritrea was continuing to provide support to al-Shabab — a view echoed by Somalia's President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed.

"The regime in Eritrea insists on terrorizing my people," he told the council, accusing the Eritrean government of giving political, logistical and financial support to al-Shabab and al Qaeda militants.

The U.N. experts also blamed Eritrea for January's planned terrorist attack on the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, which Monday's resolution condemned.

The Inter Governmental Authority for Development, known as IGAD, which groups seven East African countries, had called in July for more sanctions to hit the Eritrean mining sector and remittances.

But council diplomats said new sanctions were watered down because of opposition from Russia and China as well as some European countries and the U.S., which felt the measures could hurt the Eritrean people.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, whose country has a border dispute with Eritrea, insisted that "this is not a family quarrel" between the two countries, but an attempt to address the fact that "Eritrea is a prime source of instability for the whole region."

Meles, who heads IGAD, said he was "personally disappointed that much of the teeth of this resolution has been removed" but he said the current text still sends a message that Eritrea cannot continue to destabilize the region without consequences.

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