NAIROBI, Kenya, Sept. 17 — Eritrean officials, responding to American accusations that they have abetted terrorists in the volatile Horn of Africa, defended their actions on Monday and said that while they would like to have better relations with the United States, they had no intention of bowing to American pressure.
Over the weekend, the Eritrean government held a conference for Somali opposition leaders that included some prominent Islamists whom Jendayi E. Frazer, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, has called terrorists.
American officials have threatened to list Eritrea as a state sponsor of terrorism, accusing it of funneling weapons to Somali insurgents. But on Monday, Eritrean officials denied that they were trying to destabilize Somalia, and said their conference was a legitimate way to rebuild the shattered country.
More than that, said Ali Abdu, Eritrea’s information minister, if Ms. Frazer was trying to make “Eritrea kneel down in front of her,” she had better learn what he called a basic Eritrean fact.
“Eritreans kneel on only two occasions,” he said. “When they pray and when they shoot.”
In the past few weeks, Eritrea has become a worsening headache for American policy makers. Its capital, Asmara, has become a magnet for rebel leaders from across East Africa. Its troops are building up on the disputed border of Ethiopia, which has already been a flash point for war. What little taste Eritrean officials had for diplomatic niceties seems to have disappeared.
Eritrea has been fiercely independent from the moment the country broke off from Ethiopia in 1993. Back then, it was a darling of the West, considered the little-country-that-could and held up as a model of a crime-free, egalitarian African nation.
But in the late 1990s, things changed. Eritrea and Ethiopia went to war over Badame, a seemingly insignificant border town, and 100,000 people were killed.
American diplomats helped broker a truce but then backed off after Ethiopia decided to ignore a United Nations-supported commission that said Badame belonged to Eritrea.
“We expected the Americans to be fair,” said Yemane Gebre Meskel, the chief of staff for Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s president. “They weren’t.”
The Bush administration sees Ethiopia, with its 77 million people and one of Africa’s largest armies, as the best bulwark in the Horn of Africa against Islamist extremism, so the United States has consistently taken Ethiopia’s side against Eritrea, population five million, said Representative Donald M. Payne, Democrat of New Jersey and chairman of a House subcommittee on Africa.
“And that’s not productive,” he said. “Right now we’re boxing Eritrea into a corner.”
But Bush administration officials say Eritrea is fueling the growing violence in Somalia, and point to a United Nations report in July that said Eritrea had covertly shipped planeloads of weapons to Islamist fighters there. Eritrean officials say the report was fabricated.
Last winter, American and Ethiopian military forces teamed up to oust an Islamist movement that briefly controlled Somalia’s seaside capital, Mogadishu, and install Somalia’s weak transitional government in the city. It has not worked. An Iraq-style insurgency is burning its way across the country, with roadside bombs, political assassinations and suicide attacks, which were unheard of in Somalia until the Ethiopians arrived. Some diplomats have another name for Mogadishu: Baghdad by the Sea.
Ms. Frazer has also accused the Eritreans of arming separatist rebels in Ethiopia’s eastern Ogaden region, a charge that the rebels and Eritreans deny. If the United States did designate Eritrea a state sponsor of terrorism, a possibility that Ms. Frazer raised last month, it would result in severe economic sanctions and put Eritrea in the same club as Iran, Syria, North Korea, Sudan and Cuba.
“I think it’s 50-50 right now whether this happens,” said a State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Some experts on the region contend that Eritrea has proven a reliable partner in combating Muslim extremism in recent years. It fought Sudan in the 1990s, when Osama bin Laden lived in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, and it championed Sudanese rebels in the south and in Darfur.
“If there is one country where the fighting of extremists and terrorists was a priority when it mattered, it was Eritrea,” said Ted Dagne, an Africa specialist for the Congressional Research Service.
The Eritreans say the same thing.
“We have cooperated before with the Americans, and we can cooperate at any time,” Mr. Yemane said. “We are hoping to put this cycle of misunderstandings behind us.”
Those misunderstandings include diplomatic harassment on both sides, with the Eritreans demanding to inspect confidential diplomatic pouches of the American Embassy in Asmara and the Americans closing down an Eritrean consulate in Oakland, Calif.
European diplomats have taken a less confrontational approach, praising Eritrea for its role as regional peacemaker. In the past year, Eritrea helped broker a peace plan for eastern Sudan and held several meetings on Darfur, bringing scores of rebels to Asmara, a time capsule for perfectly preserved 1930s Art Deco architecture built by the Italian colonists.
At the same time, some Western human rights groups have accused Eritrea of cracking down ruthlessly on dissent. On Monday, the French organization Reporters Without Borders issued a statement accusing Eritrea of holding 12 journalists in secret prisons.
Mr. Abdu, the information minister, denied that Eritrea punished people without due cause, but said the government had taken steps to protect itself from its many enemies.
“You must remember we are in a state of war,” he said, referring to the unresolved border standoff with Ethiopia, which in recent months has drawn thousands of troops from each side.
A European Union official who works closely with Eritrea said the country was “obsessed with survival.”
“And because of that,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, “the Eritreans are very hard to push.”
The New York Times