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Xi: Strong China-Eritrea ties part of keeping peace in Horn of Africa

By Joe Cash

BEIJING (Reuters) -Chinese President Xi Jinping said on Monday strong China-Eritrea relations were key to bolstering peace in the Horn of Africa region and pursuing mutually beneficial development, speaking at a meeting in Beijing with his Eritrean counterpart.

Eritrea has strategic importance for China given its location on the Red Sea, one of the world's key shipping corridors with access to both to the Suez Canal and Europe to the north and the Indian Ocean to the southeast.

Eritrea, a reclusive country that won independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a long war, also shares a border with tiny Djibouti, where the Chinese military set up its first overseas naval base in 2017.

Xi, speaking to Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki in Beijing's Great Hall of the People after a guard of honour ceremony in Tiananmen Square, said China and Eritrea "share a deep bond of friendship (in) an uncertain and unstable world".

"A strong China-Eritrea relationship is not only in line with the common and long-term interests of both countries, but also for maintaining regional peace," Xi said.

Last year China named senior diplomat Xue Bing to a newly created post of special envoy for the Horn of Africa, a geopolitically sensitive, conflict-wracked region where Beijing has significant investments and, along with ally Russia, has been competing with Western powers for influence.

Isaias described how he first came to China for military training in 1967, a "momentous time, when China was at the apex of the Cultural Revolution, when bilateral ties between China and the former Soviet Union had disappeared ... and at a historical juncture, when China first tested the atomic bomb".

At a separate meeting earlier on Monday with Chinese Premier Li Qiang, Isaias praised what he called Chinese "contributions to transform the world order into a more just and fair relationship among peoples and nations".

Chinese state media earlier in the day quote Xi as saying Beijing "is willing to work with Eritrea to promote mutually beneficial cooperation and development.

"The Chinese side encourages and supports Chinese-funded enterprises to invest in Eritrea, and is willing to discuss strengthening infrastructure construction, cooperation in telecommunications, agriculture, mining, fisheries, and other fields," Chinese state television said.

Western groups have accused Eritrea of myriad human rights abuses under Isaias' 30-year-old rule, including indefinite conscription of men and unmarried women into military or government service since a 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia.

Officials in Asmara routinely deny such accusations.

In March, Eritrea's foreign ministry called a U.S. State Department ruling that its military had committed war crimes in a two-year conflict in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region "unsubstantiated and defamatory".

(Reporting by Joe Cash; editing by Robert Birsel and Mark Heinrich)