ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) – A U.S. congressional delegation has visited Eritrea for the first time in 14 years as Washington seeks closer contact with the long-reclusive state in the Horn of Africa after it made surprising peace with Ethiopia last year.
“Eritrea has been a mystery,” Karen Bass told reporters in Ethiopia on Monday after visiting Asmara with fellow lawmakers Ilhan Omar and Joe Neguse, whose parents fled Eritrea in the early 1980s as it fought for independence. “I know that there have been no reforms that have taken place yet but this is very new. I’m hopeful that reforms will take place, most notably in the area of human rights.”
Bass, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, said she hopes that several U.S. nationals detained in Eritrea, including four U.S. Embassy staff, will be released “promptly, as well as other people who are incarcerated.” She said she learned only on Monday that a U.S. national from her own California district was in detention.
Eritrea’s information minister in a Twitter post said the lawmakers met the foreign minister, presidential adviser and head of economic development. He posted a photo of the lawmakers in front of a framed photo of longtime President Isaias Afwerki, who on Sunday hosted the leaders of Ethiopia and Kenya.
Omar, who was born in nearby Somalia, told The Associated Press she was impressed with the regional thaw in East Africa after Eritrea and Ethiopia made peace, two decades after a border war killed some 80,000 people. Diplomatic and other ties have been restored, leading to celebrations and emotional family reunions.
In November the United Nations Security Council lifted sanctions on Eritrea, opening the way for further interest and investment in the country on the Red Sea across from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
Tibor Nagy, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, visited Eritrea late last year for a groundbreaking meeting with Isaias, later speaking of the possibility of better relations and of U.S. investment. “We hope to get to the point where relations with Eritrea are just as warm and cordial as those with Ethiopia,” Nagy told reporters.
With the new peace, the international community is watching Eritrea to see what reforms might follow in a country that has been a major source of migrants fleeing to Europe, Israel and elsewhere.
Eritrea hasn’t held a presidential election since independence in 1993, and rights groups have accused the country of having a harsh system of military conscription. In December, the Trump administration included Eritrea on its annual list of nations accused of “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.”
Eritrea’s government has argued against such criticism, calling it unfounded and one-sided.