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UN Officials Criticize Travel Restrictions - 2004-01-14

U-N officials in Eritrea are expressing dismay over a new government rule, which severely restricts the movement of diplomats and international aid workers in the impoverished country. As a result, the government is reviewing its new rule.

The acting resident humanitarian coordinator for the United Nations in Eritrea, Patrick Buckley, says his organization received a letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs last Friday.

The letter says that from now on, all foreigners working for embassies, consulates, the Delegation of the European Commission, U-N agencies, and international organizations in Eritrea have to obtain written permission from the government before they can travel within the country.

Only five main roads, within 100 kilometers of the capital Asmara, are exempted from the new travel regulations and travel requests have to be submitted at least 10 days in advance.

The Eritrean government says the measure is designed in part to enhance security for people traveling around the country. But Mr. Buckley predicts the restrictions could severely disrupt critical aid operations.

"It would make it very difficult for the agencies to operate because one of the requirements that we have is that we are able to access all sites. And if we have to apply 10 days in advance for clearance, it is not always possible to do this and to be specific with respect to route, time and date. It could slow down or delay the reaction to an emergency."

After vocal protests by the United Nations, government officials in Asmara held a meeting on Monday to review the new travel measure. U-N officials say they remain hopeful the restrictions will be soon be amended or lifted altogether.

The U-N World Food Program estimates nearly one-and-one-half-million people in Eritrea are in need of immediate food aid. The organization says a combination of drought and the effects of a bloody two-year border war with Ethiopia are taking a massive humanitarian toll, especially among women and children.