Isaias Afwerki is known for his tenacity, bravery and leadership. Image Credit: Gulf News

Massawa: Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki has disclosed for the first time that the US asked him in the past to provide military and intelligence facilities in the Assab area on the Red Sea coast, south of Eritrea, but his government refused.

This was before the US headed to Djibouti to use it as a headquarters of the central command of the Western forces in the Horn of Africa.

In an exclusive interview with Gulf News in the port city of Massawa, President Afewerki said that Washington also asked him about 2002 or 2003 to deploy Eritrean officers to work under the central command in Djibouti but his country rejected the request.

The President categorically denied that Israel asked for any military or security facilities in his country.

Afewerki scoffed at the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council on his country, noting that these sanctions were not new and that they had already been applied for more than ten years.

"What is new in these sanctions is that they were only issued officially from the UN Security Council which is run by Washington as it wants," he said.

He said Eritrea was able, by the will of its people, to overcome all kinds of economic and military sanctions.

On the other hand, Afewerki denied the press reports that his country signed an agreement with Tehran under which Iran was awarded an exclusive right to develop an old oil refinery in the Assab area.

Following is the full text of the interview:

Gulf News: What is your strategy to face the repercussions of the Security Council Resolution 1907, which imposes economic and military sanctions, on your government?

Isaias Afewerki: There is nothing new in the international sanctions, except for the fact that they were issued formally in the name of the UN Security Council, which is driven by the United States of America as it will. Arms embargo was imposed on our country more than 10 years ago, specifically since the outbreak of the border crisis with Ethiopia.

We have been prevented from importing spare parts for training aircraft and helicopters that we had already purchased from European countries due pressures from Washington on these countries and on the arms companies.

Even more, when we bought light weapons from Russia three years ago Washington contacted Russia and claimed that they seized the weapons in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, and they told Russia that we gave these weapons to Islamic extremists in Somalia.

Generally, the issue of the arms embargo on our country is not new, but who believes that this can weaken the defence capabilities Eritrea is dreaming. "To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." This is a scientific theory known to those who study chemistry and physics.

Since the era of the administration of former US President Bill Clinton, Washington tried to impose an economic blockade and used every possible way, the latest attempt was to block money transfers of the Eritreans working abroad after they realised that such transfers of hard currency would strengthen the revenues of the state treasury.

They tried to stop these transfers by what I would call the "piracy banks" overseas and in some of our neighbouring countries, but the Eritrean people were able to invent a new means to overcome this hurdle. This enabled the Eritrean expatriates to deliver their money remittances to their families at home.

It was our right as a member of the United Nations to get assistance from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international financial institutions, but we are prevented from this by a US decision adopted several years ago. But our people were able to overcome these challenges by relying on their own resources. Despite the drought that hit the Horn of Africa, we were able with God's help alone to produce enough food.

Has Washington ever asked you to play any role or provide specific military or intelligence facilities, and you refused it, a matter which made the US take a hostile stand against you?

Maybe.

What do you mean by "maybe"?. This question is likely to have only two answers, either yes or no.

Yes, yes, but we totally rejected the idea of foreign camps in the region and refused to use Djibouti land as a location for Western military and intelligence work in the region.

We were asked around the year 2002 or 2003, I do not remember the exact date, to deploy army officers in the Central Command, currently in Djibouti, as part of regional troops from Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti, but Sudan was not invited to this operation.

Why did you refuse to contribute troops to the Central Command in Djibouti as long as it is outside your territory?

If we participated in this operation, we would turn into mere tools in the hands of the Western military command and this is what happened to the countries that participated, especially after the events of September 11, when special units in the name of combating terrorism were established in these countries. These are intelligence units operating under the Central Command in Djibouti.

We said if the required thing is to combat terrorism, it is in our interest to fight it by ourselves, and not by proxy. If there are American or Western aids in this field, there is no objection, provided that the basis of terrorism combating should be African and should be carried out by the countries of the region itself.

You spoke before about the facilities requested by Washington to deploy troops in Djibouti. Has Washington asked you for military or intelligence facilities inside the Eritrean territories?

Yes, there was talk about giving them facilities in the area of Assab. Though this was rejected by us, in principle, but our conviction increased after we consulted independent American and European international experts, who advised us to refuse giving them these facilities.

Ethiopia has given them the region of Debre Zeyit and other locations in the territory of Ogaden under the pretext of conducting joint military exercises and training of peacekeeping forces heading to Darfur.

But I personally, do not think that this rejection is the reason for the American anger against us. It may be a part of a number of other reasons, most notably that the State of Eritrea is not obedient to the Super State.

Mr President - it is certain that Israel has strategic interests in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea. Has it ever courted you as it did with some Arab countries? What did Israel ask you and what is your response?

I tell you quite frankly that Israelis are not stupid and cannot ask any country for military or intelligence facilities, because they have other means that enable them to deal with this region. They have no security or military base in any place in the whole region operating in the daylight.

Why didn't you announce a clear and formal stance on violation of the territory of Saudi Arabia by Al Houthi rebels in Yemen, despite your good relations with Riyadh?

We cannot be asked to announce this, because there is an agreed principle that any attempt to destabilise the region, whether in Yemen, Saudi Arabia or the Gulf region, is unacceptable. Eritrea is part of the stability of the region and a part of the stability of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and any attempt to undermine the stability of these two countries affects the security of the Red Sea and the entire region.

But if the announcement was just for showing signs of solidarity, then Saudi Arabia and Yemen know our rejection of this aggression and they were not waiting for confirmation from our side.

Some media reported in 2008 that you signed in September of that year during your visit to Iran a deal with Tehran giving them an exclusive right to develop the old oil laboratories in the city of Assab, but when I visited the refinery two days ago I did not find any maintenance and it is completely abandoned?

[Laughs] We do not have any agreement with Iran to develop the refinery. What was reported in this regard was a part of a wide spread misleading campaign. Thanks to God, you visited the refinery and took photos without finding any such a thing, although we are in 2010 and the misleading media stated that the agreement was signed in 2008 as you said.

There are Gulf, Arab and Western fears from Iranian influence on Bab Al Mandab Strait in the Red Sea through facilities provided by Eritrea, which shares with Iran a hostile stance against the US. Some believe that you can give these facilities just to spite Washington.

Dealing with Iran just to spite America at the expense of the governments and peoples of this region is madness and cannot be done by anyone. I believe that the alleged Iranian bogeyman is one of the mechanisms of the US to intimidate countries in the region to achieve its own agenda. If there is a danger from Iran, or from any other foreign source, Arab countries should cooperate to protect the area from any external risks.