Eritrea blames US 'conspiracy' for migrant boat tragedy

NAIROBI (AFP) - Eritrea's government has issued a furious attack on the United States, blaming it for the deaths of more than 300 men, women and children last week in a shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa.

A statement from Asmara accused the country's enemies of using human trafficking as a "ploy" aimed at "paralysing the indomitable people and government of Eritrea".

"The prime responsibility for the gross loss of human life... squarely rests on the US administration that assigns agents of international and regional bodies, in addition to deploying various officials and spy agencies of different governments," said the statement, which was released on Wednesday.

It did not make fully clear how Washington was responsible for last Thursday's shipwreck off Italy, which saw scores of Eritrean migrants drowning near the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa after their boat caught fire.

Asmara has a long track record of accusing America - and specifically the CIA - of trying to damage the country, especially because Washington is seen as close to Eritrea's neighbour and rival Ethiopia.

The statement, which warned of "various forms of political, military and economic conspiracies", also called for an investigation into the tragedy, saying the "criminal human traffickers (were) in violation of all international laws and human values".

The statement is the first mention of the tragedy in state-run media in the country, ranked last worldwide, below North Korea, for press freedom by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The news was first relayed to the Red Sea state via a Paris-based radio station, although Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed offered his condolences to the families of the victims from New York.

Those who flee the country are viewed as traitors by the government.

The UN estimates as many as 3,000 Eritreans flood into Sudan and Ethiopia every month, from a country of some five million people and about the size of England.

Many are running from open-ended military conscription imposed by the isolated government of the Red Sea state.

Eritrea, which broke away from Ethiopia in 1991 after a brutal 30-year independence struggle, has consistently raised fears domestically that Addis Ababa is scheming to re-take the country.

This has allowed the government to conscript most adults into the army or force them to perform compulsory labour.

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