KAMPALA (Reuters) - Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, accused by the West of supporting Somalia’s Islamist rebellion, denied on Thursday that his country backed the al Qaeda-affiliated group which has been waging a four-year insurgency in Somalia.
The diplomatically isolated president, speaking in the Ugandan capital at the end of a three-day trip, denied accusations contained in a U.N. report that said Eritrea was bankrolling al Shabaab.
His visit to Uganda has raised eyebrows among regional observers, especially because the al Shabaab rebels his government is accused of financing killed 79 people in twin bombings in Kampala last year.
“These accusations are built on assumptions, innuendos, guesses about this matter.,” Isaias said in a joint news conference with his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni, when asked about his country’s support for al Shabaab.
“Shabaab is serving the interests of those who want to maintain the disintegration of Somalia and give al Shabaab an opportunity to flourish and broaden its influence in Somalia,” said Isaias, who was on his first visit to the region in four years.
Uganda provides the bulk of African Union peacekeepers for the Somali capital Mogadishu, which has witnessed daily battles for the last four years before al Shabaab withdrew earlier this month. A famine declared in parts of the country has also exacerbated the country’s anarchic, desperate situation.
Museveni, who observers say hosted Isaias to showcase his role in the fight against militancy and as a peace-seeking politician, voiced support for the isolated Eritrean leader.
“The bombing here was done by al Shabaab but the issue here is that al Shabaab is not supported by Eritrea, that’s what Isaias told me and I accept it because he’s an honorable comrade, he’s not somebody who has walked out of the slums.”
The U.N. has imposed an arms embargo on Eritrea, as well as a travel ban and asset freezes on political and military leaders who it says are violating an arms embargo on Somalia.
A U.N. report said in late July that Eritrea was bankrolling al Shabaab, which Asmara said was “ridiculous and absurd”. The report also said Eritrea was behind a plot to attack an African Union summit in Ethiopia in January.
“We don’t have a tradition of hijackings, kidnappings, (or) bombings in our history ... It’s cowardly and it’s not part of our history... Now to simply fabricate and accumulate these lies and disseminate them to create an aura of suspicion about this or that on our credibility doesn’t work,” Isaias said.
As al Shabaab loses some of its foothold in Somalia, Isaias may be trying to mend its international relations, analysts have said.
The secretive Red Sea state rejoined the East African bloc IGAD last month, four years after it walked out on the body in protest at arch-foe Ethiopia entering Somalia to oust an Islamist administration.
Ethiopia has said the visit was a ploy to avert more sanctions. At the United Nations, Eritrea accused Ethiopia of a “frenzied campaign” to impose new U.N. Security Council sanctions in a bid to topple the Eritrean government and secure access to the sea.