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Eritrea Orders Aid Groups to Stop Activities

At least three aid agencies received letters from the Eritrean government this week directing the agencies to terminate their work in the country. The letters come at a time when Eritrea is suffering from a regional drought and serious food shortages.

A desk officer with the Irish aid agency Concern, Austin Kennan, tells VOA his group is mystified by the letter because agency staff have always enjoyed good working relationships with the Eritrean government.

"We did get a letter asking us to cease operations because we hadn't met requirements for [an] operational permit," he explained. "Now we are actually trying to seek clarification from the Eritrean government as to exactly how we have not met their requirements - we are not exactly specifically sure what requirements they are referring to. For us, it was a shock and a surprise - we were not expecting it at all."

Kennan says it is also unclear whether or not the directive to cease operations means that the group is being expelled from the country.

Concern is one of at least three international agencies to have received the letter. The British organization ACORD and the U.S. charity Mercy Corps have also been directed to wind up their operations.

Last month, the government ordered six Italian aid groups to stop their activities in Eritrea.

Presidential spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel tells VOA the letters arise out of a government policy created in 1994 to regulate non-government organizations.

Yemane would not specify the regulations that Concern and the others failed to meet, but says the regulations in general aim to ensure that development efforts are carried out properly.

"The purpose is very clear: one is efficiency, second is to make sure that the relief activity or development activity[s] are not too fragmented and they make an impact," he explained. "So there is a consolidation of NGO activity, there is better coordination with other actors - government, local NGOs, etc., and there is less wastage."

Yemane says there are about 14 major foreign non-government organizations that are still operating in the country. He says the government has been very open about communicating its policy to the foreign agencies.

Some sources quoted in media reports say Eritrea is slowly closing itself off from the outside world, while others think the regulations are a misguided attempt for Eritrea to become more self-reliant, statements Yemane dismisses.

The letters come at a time when Eritrea is suffering from a regional drought and serious food shortages.

According to the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, two-thirds of Eritrea's 3.6 million people are food insecure.