A day-long siege at Eritrea's information ministry Monday ended in a stalemate, with disgruntled soldiers retreating to a strategic location outside the capital, Asmara. That the incident provides rare insight into the inner workings of one of the world's most opaque societies.
International observers are wondering what happened Monday after a group of soldiers drove to Eritrea's information ministry and demanded that a statement be read out over state-run television. The statement asking for the release of political prisoners and for respect of the constitution was being read when the station suddenly went off the air.
Nearly 12 hours later, the station resumed broadcasting with no mention of the cause of the disruption. The troops that had occupied the ministry simply climbed back into their armored personnel carriers and drove off.
Information gathered from a variety of sources indicates the operation was led by Colonel Saleh Osman, a legendary figure of the Eritrea-Ethiopia war from 1998 to 2000. A usually authoritative opposition website reports that Colonel Osman and several dozen supporters retreated to the suburbs of Asmara, where they are in talks with President Isaias Afewerki's government.
Information is tightly controlled in Eritrea. The watchdog group Reporters Without Borders ranks the Red Sea nation last out of 179 countries in press freedom, below North Korea.
Former Reporters Without Borders Africa director Leonard Vincent is the author of a book titled The Eritreans, and a close follower of the country. In a telephone interview, Vincent said Monday's siege appears to have been a show of force, and not an attempt to seize power.
"Yesterday's operation was not aimed at overthrowing by violence the government, but still it's a standoff with the government," said Vincent. "It's an operation aimed at showing defiance toward them. So this shows the level of frustration in the army is very high."
Vincent says the standoff at the information ministry suggests Colonel Osman has broad support within the military.
"If this was an isolated operation led by a rebel colonel, this kind of move should have been met by violence and severe repression," he said. "This hasn't happened, so there might be negotiations going on, and this unit might not be so isolated as we thought yesterday."
Vincent believes it is too early to tell whether the operation was successful.
"We cannot say if it has succeeded or failed," said Vincent. "What we can say is a faction of the army is showing its strength and is talking with the government on the basis of what they are capable of doing in terms of taking control of parts of the country."
Vincent says the dissidents' demand of freedom for political prisoners, particularly those jailed in a 2001 purge, has deep resonance among ordinary Eritreans.
"It's the sine qua non [essential] condition for change in Eritrea," he said. "The situation of political prisoners is awful. Reformists and journalists who were jailed in 2001 have vanished. According to sketchy reports, they are detained in high security prison in the far northeast of the country, and the majority have died from disease or by suicide. This is a method the government uses against any dissent or criticism."
Human rights groups have long criticized Eritrea's record of jailing government critics. The United Nations last year estimated there are as many as 10,000 political prisoners in a country of six million people.