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Published: Friday June 27, 2014 MYT 9:25:02 PM
Updated: Friday June 27, 2014 MYT 9:26:17 PM

U.N. agrees to launch human rights inquiry into Eritrea

GENEVA (Reuters) - The U.N. Human Rights Council agreed on Friday to set up a year-long inquiry into human rights in Eritrea, similar to previous high-level investigations into Syria, North Korea and Sri Lanka.

It condemned what it said were "widespread and systematic" violations by Eritrea's government, from arbitrary executions to restrictions on religion, detention of journalists and a shoot-to-kill policy for citizens trying to cross the border.

"The human rights crisis in Eritrea has been forgotten for too long and the scale of the violations is unparalleled, putting the country amongst the worst human rights situations worldwide," said Ambassador Yusuf Mohamed Ismail of Somalia, which had initiated the call for an inquiry.

The 47-state forum decided to set up the inquiry without a vote, but China, Pakistan, Venezuela and Russia indicated that they had reservations but did not try to block the inquiry.

The three-strong inquiry will include Sheila B. Keetharuth, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea, and one expert apiece from Africa and Europe, Mohamed Ismail said.

Keetharuth has said conscription in Eritrea amounts to indefinite forced labour. People who resist can be shot on the spot, she said in a report to the council.

Enforced drafting into the security services is fuelling an exodus from the Horn of Africa country, and Eritreans now make up the single largest nationality among people fleeing to Europe across the Mediterranean, often in unseaworthy boats.

The U.N. refugee agency says 313,000 people have fled Eritrea, about 6 percent of a population that Keetharuth said was estimated at 5 million.

Eritrea has refused to cooperate with Keetharuth and denies it has committed any human rights violations.

Its representative at the meeting said Keetharuth's report was "biased and unfounded" and Eritrea "totally rejected" the call to set up an inquiry.

The Eritrean diplomat said the fabricated image of Eritrea had become the basis of a "fake crisis" and laid the blame on its neighbour Ethiopia.

"While it is to be noted that Eritrea has become a target of U.S. hostilities, it has become apparent that this draft resolution is also part of Ethiopia's strenuous effort to maintain the U.N. sanction imposed on Eritrea," he said.

Leaked documents sent by Ethiopia to its embassies had stressed the need to lobby for members of the Human Rights Council to put more pressure on Eritrea, he said.

No one from Ethiopia's U.N. delegation in Geneva was immediately available to comment.

(Editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Louise Ireland)

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