ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Eritrea has accused four British nationals it detained late last year of espionage, terrorism and using one of its islands as a depot for arms.
The four, who work for a British maritime security firm, were arrested by Eritrean authorities on December 24 over a payment dispute.
A foreign ministry report obtained by Reuters on Thursday said further investigation found them to be in possession of “countless amounts” of arms.
The accused work for the UK-based Protection Vessels International (PVI) which says they were en route to provide security for ships in a region where piracy is rife.
It said the four were forced to make an unscheduled stop in Eritrea due to “rough weather” and acknowledged its staff had “mishandled the situation”.
The incident has worsened already frosty relations between Eritrea and Britain, whom Asmara accuses of siding with arch-foe Ethiopia along with the United States. The Red Sea state is at loggerheads with its southern neighbour over a border dispute.
The Eritrean foreign ministry report said the arms included “18 different types of snipers, 10 bulletproof vests, 1,700 bullets of various types, 2 GPS with infrared night vision and daylight binoculars”, which were stashed in the Eritrean island of Romia, some 30 nautical miles (56 km) off the mainland.
“There is high possibility that such military hardware is intended for perpetrating acts of terrorism and sabotage,” the report said.
“Hence, the members are accountable for infiltrating into the sovereign Eritrean island of Romia and stashing weaponry, besides orchestrating futile acts of espionage and terrorism.”
All members have “fully admitted their crimes”, it said.
The report also said three other members of the group had escaped by speedboat when approached by naval authorities.
PVI company head Dom Mee said in a statement the firm will continue to liaise with the Foreign Office, and called for an “opportunity for dialogue” with Eritrean authorities.
British authorities say they have been denied consular access to the four men and Eritrea had rebuffed its attempts to discuss the issue, despite both countries being signatories of the Vienna Convention which grants access within 48 hours.
The Foreign Office has in retaliation barred Eritrean diplomats and visiting officials from travelling outside London without written permission, after British Minister for Africa Henry Bellingham said his country was ready to take “robust action” if Asmara remained silent.
Asmara did not mention the possibility of access in its report, but said legal proceedings were still ongoing, and that it would hold Britain accountable for the violations.
“The British government is equally to be held accountable for issuing a permit that was used as a cover for the criminals who committed acts of invasion and espionage, as well as organising terrorist acts and sabotage, in addition to possession of weaponry in sovereign Eritrean territory,” the report said.
Britain has in the past called for “punishment” of Asmara for its suspected support of Islamist insurgents in Somalia. The United Nations imposed sanctions on Eritrea in late 2009.