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Speculation Surrounds Assassination Attempt on Eritrean President
Speculation Surrounds Assassination Attempt on Eritrean President
Written by Benjamin Joffe-Walt
Published Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The mystery surrounding an alleged assassination attempt on Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki last week continues.

Various Eritrean opposition and media sources outside the country are claiming that a 43-year-old Eritrean solder and former 'freedom fighter' attempted to kill President Afewerki on the afternoon of August 13 near Mai-Ata’l, on the road between the capital city of Asmara and the Red Sea port of Massawa.

The reports claim that First Lieutenant Daniel Habte Yihdego, a former teacher, hit the President's vehicle with several sniper shots before being shot to death by the President's security detail.

"The president was barely able to escape death," claimed The Asmarino Independent, an Eritrean Diaspora publication.

"President Isaias Afewerki is in ‘a state of shock and panic’," claimed a report on the website, citing sources in Asmara.

Eritrean officials and Eritrean embassies in Europe either refused to comment or denied the reports, describing them to The Media Line as "opposition oriented news".

"This is rubbish, it's not true," Tesfamariam Tekeste, a senior Eritrean diplomat, told The Media Line. "These people write nonsense all the time and cannot be considered credible media."

"It just didn't happen," he stressed. "If this actually happened, it would be all over international news."

Foreign embassies in the Eritrean capital Asmara claimed to know nothing about the alleged incident.

"The honest answer is, ‘we don't know,’" Amanda Cooper, the Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy in Eritrea told The Media Line. "We don't know where these rumors came from and we don't know who started it. The only information we have is from press reports and as you're probably aware, everything that appears in local press is government sanctioned and international media are not allowed into the country."

U.S. Embassy in Asmara acknowledged hearing reports of the attempt, but had no further information.

Asmara-based analysts and other western diplomats said that even if the President had been assassinated, it would take a few days for the news to get out.

"Even if it happened, there's no way we could substantiate it," another senior western diplomat told The Media Line, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"Getting any clear-cut information is as difficult in-country as it is for anyone outside of the country."

"We would have picked up an atmosphere of tension, but if we approached anybody about it, it would just be denied," said the diplomat. "Still, the president always has guards with him wherever he goes and we've seen enough government officials and ministers since the weekend to know that if there was an assassination attempt, it certainly failed."

Ethiopian Diaspora websites have been rife with speculation about the alleged assassination attempt.

"The assassination attempt on the life of the Eritrean President by one of his own army officers clearly signifies the people’s anger and resentment against terror and tyranny," wrote columnist Michael Abraha in the American Chronicle.

Initially seen as the country's liberator and a proponent of democratic transformation, President Isaias Afewerki has been in power for more than 18 years. His opponents accuse him of establishing a totalitarian grip on the country's political system, economy, media and religious establishment.

Eritria has seen no national elections in the nearly two decades since its independence; an interim parliament has not met since 2002; the government is entirely controlled by the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, Eritrea's sole political party; and critics say a constitution approved by referendum in 1997 remains unimplemented. Eritrea's press is entirely government-controlled and there are no civil society organizations independent of the government.

A highly militarized state, all Eritreans must serve at least 18 months in the national army. The World Bank estimates that some 320,000 Eritreans are in the military: 1 in every 13 citizens.

Mr Yihdego, the alleged shooter, was born in Asmara and worked as a teacher before joining the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) in 1984, fighting in western Eritrea for independence from Ethiopia. The Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) was the principal rebel force which led the fight for Eritrean independence from Ethiopia.

Following independence in 1991, Mr Yihdego joined the Immigration Department, but was his job was "frozen" earlier this year after he fell out of favor with the government for unknown reasons.

Mr Yihdego's brother Temesgen Habte Yihdego is well known for questioning President Afewerki about the legality of the Special Court of Eritrea, a parallel judicial system which deals with criminal cases assigned to it by the Office of the Attorney General. Temesgen died shortly after questioning the Eritrean leader under suspicious circumstances.

Copyright © 2008 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

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