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ERITREA: Expelled NGO seeks reconsideration

NAIROBI, 7 November 2006 (IRIN) - Emergency relief organisation, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), has asked the Eritrean government to reconsider its decision to expel it from the country, the agency said on Tuesday.

The IRC, in a statement, said it was awaiting a formal reply. "In the meantime, due to the extremely short timeline for closure, IRC has initiated close-out procedures," it added.

It said its office in Eritrea received a notice of expulsion from the government on 1 November.

"The minister of labour and human welfare, Ms Askalu Menkerios, informed the IRC in a letter that due to the recent signing of a Northeast Sudan Peace Agreement, IRC's operating and work permits will be invalid as of November 15," the agency said.

Eritrea's information minister, Ali Abdu, told IRIN on Tuesday that the government had asked IRC to leave because its original mandate was cross-border operations from Eritrea to eastern Sudan.

"Since the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement between the Sudanese government and the eastern Sudanese rebel groups in Asmara, there is no need for any cross-border operations since they [NGOs] can safely operate on the other side of the border [eastern Sudan]," he said. "We are grateful for what they have done for the people but they are no longer needed and we have given them enough time to wind up their operations."

The IRC has been operational in Eritrea and northeast Sudan since 2001. Its programmes include water, sanitation and small-scale agricultural support activities. It is also involved in primary healthcare, water, sanitation and livestock support in northeast Sudan.

"We regret this sudden turn of events and hope that the people of Eritrea and northeast Sudan continue to receive the level of assistance they need," John Keys, IRC's International Programmes director, said.

The agency said its current funding levels in Eritrea and Sudan amounted to at least US $3.7 million, the majority of which goes to Eritrean programmes. "Current and planned activities in Eritrea and northeast Sudan assist approximately 140,000 beneficiaries," it said.

IRC's expulsion was made alongside that of another NGO, Samaritan's Purse. Officials in the Samaritan's Purse offices in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, declined to comment on the expulsion.

Eritrea has gradually changed its relations with the aid community, emphasising the need for self-reliance. Since a proclamation on administering the activities of NGOs was put into effect in June 2005, the number of NGOs working in the country had dropped significantly.

In July 2005, Eritrea, one of the world's most food aid-dependent countries, asked USAID - its largest donor of food aid - to stop operations, saying it was uncomfortable with the agency's work.

Observers interpreted the changes as an expression of anger over a perception in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, that the international community favours its larger neighbour, Ethiopia. The two countries fought a border war from 1998 to 2000 and are still in a tense standoff over the dispute.

The latest expulsions bring to six the number of international organisations Eritrea has kicked out in 2006. The expulsions also include that of an Italian diplomat, as well as some western peacekeepers serving in the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE).

In March, the government asked three international NGOs and one local NGO to stop operating in the country, saying they had failed to meet the requirements of a permit allowing them to work there. In a letter dated 20 March, the Ministry of Labour and Human Welfare asked American charity Mercy Corps International, Concern World Wide of Ireland, and the UK’s ACORD - as well a local group known as Hansenians Eritrean Welfare Organisation - to terminate their operations in Eritrea.

"While thanking your organisation for the contribution it has made to relief and rehabilitation programmes in Eritrea in the past years, the ministry kindly and regretfully informs you that the registration certificate is recalled and requests the termination of your activities," the ministry said.

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[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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