Coffins of victims from a shipwreck off Sicily are seen in a hangar of the Lampedusa airport
Coffins of victims from a shipwreck off Sicily are seen in a hangar of the Lampedusa airport (Reuters) Reuters

Eritrea blamed the United States for the deaths of more than 300 refugees after a migrant boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa.

The authoritarian government of the so-called North Korea of Africa accused its enemies of resorting to a "human trafficking ploy" with the aim of "disintegrating and paralyzing the indomitable people and Government of Eritrea".

"The prime responsibility for the gross loss of human life, as verified by concrete evidences, squarely rests on the US Administration that assigns agents of international and regional bodies, in addition to deploying various officials and spy agencies of different governments," a statement by the government of Eritrea said.

The constant arrival of migrants to Italy - 8,400 landed in Sicily and Malta in the first six months of 2013 - puts a spotlight on what is considered one of Africa's most opaque countries.

Ruled by president Isaias Afewerki, who has been in power since 1993, Eritrea has not seen national elections since it gained independence 20 years ago. Torture, arbitrary detention and severe restrictions on freedom of expression are routine.

The mandatory military service, any time between the ages of 18 and 55, is often cited as one of the main reasons why people flee the country.

Advocacy group Reporters without Borders ranked Eritrea at the bottom of a list of 179 countries for freedom of expression. Access to the country for international humanitarian and human rights organizations is almost impossible and the country has no independent media.

"When Eritreans die in sinking boats, the government never proclaims a day of mourning for them," Meron Estefanos, human rights activist and radio presenter in Sweden for Radio Erena, said.

The government's statement called for an investigation into the shipwreck but failed to explain how Washington, a long-standing enemy of Asmara, was responsible for the Lampedusa tragedy.

The UN estimates that at least 3,000 Eritreans flee to Sudan and Ethiopia every month.

The situation in Eritrea is getting worse, according to Estefanos. "There is no electricity in many areas and a dramatic shortage of water," she said.

"The President said to stop complaining about water. 'If water does not go to people, people should go to water,' he said. They went to water and died."