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Song and dance over referendum: Eritreans celebrate three days spent voting for independence from Ethiopia

THEY WERE dancing in the street long after I went to bed and their dancing woke me in the morning. The relentless, repetitive Eritrean music blares out from speakers hung on every lamppost on the main streets. Quiet came only in the afternoon, when the city closes for a three-hour siesta (this was not an Italian colony for nothing).

In the parts of town not reached by piped music, men and women gathered in separate groups around a drummer and linked arms and chanted. Outside polling stations, the queues burst into clapping and ululations at the slightest excuse or threw popcorn into the air.

But the perpetual party belies an underlying seriousness. In a three-day referendum, 800,000 people are voting to decide the future of Eritrea. With the simple efficiency that marks this about-to-be country, each voter brings a registration card, signs or makes a thumb print in the register and takes a voting card. They are half-blue and half-red, blue for independence and red for continued union with Ethiopia. The voter tears off one half and places it in the ballot box.

I asked one man to translate the question in the local language, Tigrinya, written on the voting slip. 'It says 'Do you want Eritrea to be free?',' he replied. The actual word is 'independent' but it matters little. All the procedure of the referendum, with international observers, is a mere rubber stamp. It has proved impossible to find anyone who is going to vote against independence.

In Asmara's prison the 244 political prisoners - collaborators with the former regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam - were casting their votes. Here, if anywhere in Asmara, one might expect to find resistance to the idea of Eritrean independence.

Isias Merhazion used to be a representative of the Ethiopian Workers Party. He was arrested two days after the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) took power in 1991 and had been held ever since without charge. He said he had never been subjected to threats or political indoctrination and that his family were allowed to visit him every three weeks. He wore his own clothes, had his own radio and was allowed to talk freely to me.

He described himself as one of the most senior people who had collaborated with the old regime, but said he would be voting for independence, as would every other political prisoner in the jail. 'Two of my brothers died fighting for the EPLF and I am proud that these people have now taken over . . . we hope with this referendum we cannot present any sort of threat to the government and I hope they will let us out now,' he said.

There are, however, parts of Eritrea that may not share the capital's enthusiasm for independence. Assab, 300 miles to the east, is the main port for Ethiopia and has few links with the Eritrean highlands. The population is largely Afar, a nomadic and independent-minded people. The Afar sultan has declared Assab an Afar town and many may want an independent Afar homeland or continued unity with Ethiopia.

The vote may have repercussions in Ethiopia, where there is a strong feeling for unity, especially among the Amharic people around the capital. There are fears of retribution against the Eritrean population in Ethiopia.

The EPLF's attempt to make friends with everyone in the region appears to be paying off, with food aid on its way from Saudi Arabia - an apparent peace offering. The Saudis were deeply opposed to a new state across the Red Sea. When an EPLF leader contracted cerebral malaria last month, he flew to Tel Aviv for treatment. The Saudis promptly expelled the EPLF representatives. The EPLF has nevertheless continued relations with the Israelis.