Eritrea silent on detained UK nationals

2011-03-09 18:52

Addis Ababa - Eritrea is refusing to give any information on the whereabouts of British nationals it is holding and has denied consular access to them, a British official said on Wednesday.

Asmara has neither confirmed nor denied their detention, but UK media reports have said four ex-Royal Marines were arrested in December by an Eritrean naval vessel after a gun battle as they guarded a merchant ship from pirates in the Indian Ocean.

The London-based newspaper The Sun reported last month that the four were seized by Eritrea's navy after being approached for paperwork. Another two had escaped by boat, it said.

"We haven't been able to confirm. We know that they are a small handful of British nationals, but that's one of the things we need to confirm," Tim Hitchens, the Foreign Office's director for Africa, told Reuters in Addis Ababa.

"We need to go meet these people and find out who they are, what number they are, whether they are being treated properly and pass messages from their families to them but that hasn't happened," he said.

Eritrea is one of the world's most secretive nations and has frosty relations with a number of western countries as well as most of its neighbours, having been involved in border disputes with Ethiopia and Djibouti.

Growing pirate threat

Britain had repeatedly called for "punishment" of Asmara for its alleged support of Islamist insurgents in Somalia before the United Nations imposed sanctions on Eritrea last year.

"The point we make to the Eritrean authorities is we are not asking for special favours in any way, forget access to our British nationals; we are not pleading for what they may or may have not done while they have been detained," Hitchens said.

"We are simply saying we have a consular responsibility towards British nationals, we need to get in to see that they are being treated okay. And that hasn't happened."

Hitchens said Britain is pushing for consular access through diplomatic means "at a senior level".

The growing pirate threat to key supply routes in the Indian Ocean has prompted powers including Russia, China, India and Japan to send warships, working loosely alongside Western task forces including those of the European Union, Nato and United States.