The Eritrean government has ordered international charities to leave the country in what some analysts have suggested is a veiled attempt by the authorities to force a long-running border dispute with Ethiopia back on to the international agenda.
Despite the area suffering from a crippling drought, one of the worst to hit the Horn of Africa for years, three charities were asked to leave the country because they had not met operational requirements.
Concern Worldwide, Mercy Corps and Acord all received a letter this week telling them to cease operations and leave the country. The letters from the Ministry of Labour and Human Welfare gave no reason behind the expulsions.
One of the letters said: "While thanking your organisation for the contribution it has made to relief and rehabilitation programmes in Eritrea in the past years, the ministry kindly, officially informs you that the registration certificate is recalled and requests the termination of your activities."
The letters asked the charities to cease their work as of 28 February, despite only arriving in their offices on 20 March.
"The letter just states that we have not met the requirements for an operational permit - something else we hadn't heard of before. It may be a new regulation," said Angela O'Neill DeGuilio, Concern's Horn of Africa director. "We're trying diplomatic means and hope it's not an irreversible decision. We're trying to be optimistic," she said, adding that Concern officials would hopefully be talking to the Eritrean government within the next few days.
One analyst, who asked not to be named, told Reuters the expulsion of the three charities was an effective way of keeping international attention focused on the long-running border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea. "They've realised that a series of implementable, small threats is the most credible way to keep tensions high," he said.
Eritrean rebels fought a 30-year war of independence with the Ethiopian government before finally winning independence in 1993.
After 70,000 people were killed in a brutal two-year border war in the late 1990s, Ethiopia and Eritrea finally agreed to mark out their common border as ruled by an independent boundary commission in 2000.
But Eritrea has repeatedly expressed its frustration that the international community has not done more to enforce the ruling in April 2002, which Ethiopia eventually rejected. Some of the expelled charities work near the fragile border between the two countries.
The latest move is a worrying development for agencies trying to alleviate the effects of drought and food shortages in Africa's youngest country. The Eritrean government has increasingly rejected the wider international community, and the country's leader, President Isaias Afwerki, has accused foreign powers of favouring their long hostile neighbour Ethiopia.Reuse content