Eritrean leader blames CIA plot for youth exodus

ASMARA, May 13 (Reuters) - Eritrea accused the CIA and other Western agencies on Tuesday of luring young people away from the Red Sea state in a plot to weaken a nation seen as a threat to U.S. interests in the region.

"It's an orchestrated, organised operation financed by the CIA," President Isaias Afwerki told Reuters.

Up to 25,000 Eritreans leave illegally each year, most into neighbouring Sudan and Ethiopia on their way to Europe or the Middle East, diplomats and analysts say. Some Eritreans are granted political asylum in Western countries.

"Hundreds of young have been misled that there is heaven outside ... It's an orchestrated attempt to deplete this nation of its young," Isaias added.

"We have evidence. We know what's going on in terms of the media campaign, psychological warfare, tempting people, trying to facilitate them to cross the border."

The 62-year-old former guerrilla leader, who took power in 1991, said Britain's intelligence service and the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) were also behind the strategy.

"UNHCR is getting involved, CIA station officers in the region, some embassies are involved. They want young Eritreans to flee this country."

Critics of Isaias' government say young Eritreans are fleeing political repression and mandatory national service that lasts a minimum of 18 months but can go on years longer. Nearly one in 21 of Eritrea's 4.5 million people is in the military, according to the United Nations.

Asmara says that is necessary due to the threat from neighbouring and U.S.-backed Ethiopia, with which it fought a 1998-2000 war. Eritrea restricts exit visas and passports of military-eligible men and women under 50 and 47 respectively.

Instead of finding a better life, young Eritreans abroad were falling into prostitution, "concentration camps" for refugees, and other ills, Isaias said.

The United States has threatened to put Eritrea on its list of sponsors of terrorism, accusing it of sending arms to Somali insurgents. Washington is also upset at Eritrea's measures against U.N. peacekeepers at the Ethiopian border.

"A JOKE"

Isaias mocked rights groups who accuse him of imprisoning thousands of dissidents, muzzling independent media and using security forces to keep a tight grip on the people.

"It's become a sort of joke ... they have no qualifications. They have no right to be human rights groups," he said. "No one has the right to point a finger at us."

Eritrea's jails housed only those who threatened security, he said. "It's very small numbers, and we are not shy to say these are individuals who've done harm to the national security of this country."

"We are not questioning the fact that we have done this and we will continue to do it. This has nothing to do with human rights."

Isaias said Eritrea was still committed in the future to holding an election, though hostilities with Ethiopia had put this on hold.

"It has to come ... I have nothing to benefit by postponing a political process," he said, arguing that Eritrea would design its own democracy.

"I wouldn't like an election a la Kenya-style or the Zimbabwean style, or the Palestinian style, or the Afghani style. Not at all."

But Isaias emphasised that Eritrea would not be pressured on this from outside.

"I will stay as long as it takes," he said.

(Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com/ )

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