NAIROBI (Reuters) - Eritrea has punished the family members of thousands of alleged draft evaders during a conscription drive intended to bolster its military campaign in neighbouring Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
Women as old as 71 were arbitrarily detained and expelled from their homes as the authorities sought to locate their missing relatives, the U.S.-based rights group said in a report.
Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel did not respond to a request for comment about the report.
The HRW report, based on interviews with more than a dozen people who had fled the country and relatives of people caught up in the conscription drive, provides a glimpse into how the secretive country powered its military campaign in Ethiopia's Tigray region.
It said security forces went door to door to identify draft dodgers and detained people who could not account for missing family members.
"Everyone has always lived with the dreadful feeling of the risk of being conscripted, but this is at a whole different level," one resident of the capital Asmara told Human Rights Watch.
Etitrea has conscripted men and unmarried women over the age of 18 into indefinite military or government service since fighting a border war with Ethiopia from 1998-2000.
Yemane told Eritrean media last year that some reservists were called up but said the government was not mobilising the entire population.
Eritrea last June dismissed a report from the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea that noted forced military conscription, among other violations.
It said it deeply regretted an attack on "the national service program which is the backbone of Eritrea’s national defence capabilities ascertaining the right of self-defence, the right to live in peace without any threat and defend its sovereignty".
Eritrean troops fought in support of Ethiopia's army during its two-year war against regional Tigrayan forces.
Major fighting ended in November with the signing of a ceasefire, but Eritrea was not a signatory to the accord, and residents and diplomats say its forces are still present in parts of Tigray.
Eritrea has not commented on its troops' presence in Ethiopia since the ceasefire.
Eritrea considers the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the political party that leads Tigrayan forces, its enemy. The border war occurred when the TPLF dominated Ethiopia's federal government.
(Reporting by Giulia Paravicini; Editing by Aaron Ross and Alison Williams)