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Monday, September 17, 2007

Asmara, Rebel Haven

By Jack Kimball

ASMARA, Sept 16 (Reuters) - They're all around me. In cafes sipping sweetened tea, walking down the Eritrean capital's tree-lined boulevards, or in a local fair.
Rebels are in Asmara, and they're everywhere you go.

From Sudan to Somalia, insurgents have descended on tranquil Asmara, some looking to overthrow governments, some looking for change, but all seeing Eritrea as a home-from-home.

As I sit in a caf drinking a cappuccino before meeting two Sudanese ex-rebels for lunch, some former Somali dissident lawmakers pass by in a taxi driven by an aging Eritrean.

Many taxi drivers in Eritrea are ex-rebel fighters themselves, and I wonder if the Somalis think that in a decade they will lead peaceful lives like him.

You never know who you're going to meet in Eritrea.

Riding through Asmara's thoroughfares on my Italian-made motorbike, I wave as I pass by Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, head of the Somali Islamists recently driven out of Mogadishu.
He's taking a stroll in his dark blue suit.

It's strangely fitting that Eritrea, which spent thirty, brutal years rising up against Ethiopia before gaining independence in 1991, should now host so many opposition groups.

The Red Sea state seems to be saying it's rebel-friendly, willing to take on world powers like the United States for having policies which Eritrea says are anathema to the region.

Eritrea's own rebels-turned-rulers have long, historic ties with many groups around Africa. Most Eritrean fighters travelled on Somali passports during their independence struggle, and many refugees took shelter in neighbouring Sudan.

But some in the West, including Washington which is threatening to put Asmara on its terrorism list, accuse Eritrea of not just hosting but also arming groups and thus destabilising one of the world's most fragile regions.

In more than a decade following independence, analysts say that Eritrea has tried to assert itself as a major regional power, getting involved in conflicts in such faraway places as eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Back at lunch with the two Sudanese ex-rebels, we're sipping liquorice-tasting alcohol and eating chicken with rice.

In the post-eating haze, we lounge around watching a movie called "The Truman Show" starring Jim Carey.

It wasn't a particularly memorable day. But two months later I hear that one of my fellow diners has been appointed a senior rebel commander fighting with one of Sudan's Darfur factions.

On another occasion, in a small office in Asmara, some rebels are talking about the kidnapping of a commander in Darfur. As we sip tea, conversation slowly turns to airplanes.

First, how, if you're lucky, a rocket-propelled grenade shot from underneath will only pierce the plane's skin and not kill you. Then how aesthetics affect our view of a plane's worth.

"The Hercules plane is much better than an Antonov," says one, referring to planes found throughout world hot spots.

"In an Antonov, you can see all the insides, the straps hanging down, all that stuff. It just freaks me out, but the Hercules is a beautiful plane," he says.

It's easy to forget that rebels have a past.

These men and women were once teachers, lawyers, scientists, presidents, ambassadors, army officers and the like.

But at some point, all chose to take up arms -- or just words -- for reasons as varied as their backgrounds.

Speeding by the pastel-coloured Art Deco buildings that have made this highland capital famous, I'm reminded that it's not just insurgents who've fled to this city.

Many architects came during the early part of last century to escape what they said was a stifling style in Europe, giving Africa one of its most architecturally unique cities.

The Rest @ Reuters Africa

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