(FT.com) Eritrea was hit by United Nations sanctions on Wednesday as the international community stepped up its efforts to stop the country’s alleged support for Islamists fighting a bloody insurgency in Somalia.
The US and other western countries accuse Eritrea of supplying weapons and money to the al-Shabaab militia that is seeking to topple Somalia’s weak interim government, which has international support but little authority on the ground.
Eritrea, a tiny Red Sea country with few international friends, has repeatedly denied the allegation. Its critics say it is seeking to destabilise Somalia in order to threaten Ethiopia, which borders both countries and is Eritrea’s bitter enemy.
The Security Council resolution imposes an arms embargo on Eritrea as well as freezing the assets of individuals and companies, which will be designated by an existing sanctions committee, and introducing travel bans.
The resolution demands that Eritrea “cease arming, training, and equipping armed groups and their members including al-Shabaab, that aim to destabilize the region”.
Somalia has been mired in lawlessness since its last functional central government collapsed during civil war in 1991.
The latest phase of violence and civilian suffering in its south and central regions began almost three years ago after Ethiopia invaded at the end of 2006 – with tacit US backing – to oust a ruling coalition of Islamists and reinstall the interim government.
Since then the Islamists have split. In January this year Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a moderate and co-leader of the 2006 coalition, was elected as president of the so-called transitional federal government (TFG).
But he has become locked in a bloody stalemate with al-Shabaab, which is made up of extremists who were his allies in the 2006 coalition.
“The problem with the TFG is there’s not a lot of reconciliation and dialogue you can do with Shabaab,” said one UN official who works on Somalia.
Al-Shabaab is waging an anti-government campaign of bomb and mortar attacks –killing three ministers in one incident this month – but has not been able to overcome a last line of defence provided by some 4,000 African Union peacekeepers.
The UN sanctions resolution was passed by 13 votes in the 15 member council. Libya voted against and China abstained.
Ben Rawlence, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “Pressure on only one country in the Horn of Africa is unlikely to provide a solution to the crisis in Somalia and domestic crises in Ethiopia and Eritrea.”
Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a guerrilla war but its repressive ruling regime fell out with Ethiopia again over a 1998-2000 border war and Ethiopia’s refusal to implement the ruling of an independent boundary commission.
“A better approach would be a joined-up one that says Ethiopia needs to implement the border decision, Eritrean security concerns relating to Ethiopia are legitimate, and everyone needs to get out of Somalia,” said Mr Rawlence.
In a letter to the council last week, Araya Desta, Eritrea’s UN ambassador, described the sanctions as “ludicrous punitive measures” and warned they risked “engulfing the region into another cycle of conflict as it may encourage Ethiopia to contemplate reckless military adventures”.