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Factfile on Eritrea

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Eritrea, which celebrates the 20th anniversary of its independence on May 24, is one of the most isolated countries in the world.

GEOGRAPHY: The country, which covers about 121,000 square kilometres (48,500 square miles), is located between Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti and occupies a strategic place in the Horn of Africa region. It has a 1,000 kilometre (620 mile) coastline along one of the world's busiest shipping lanes on the Red Sea.

POPULATION: Eritrea has a population of about 5.4 million people, according to the World Bank, divided into nine ethnic groups. The United Nations estimates the Eritrean diaspora to be around 1.2 million people.

RELIGION: Official statistics say the population is evenly divided between Christians and Muslims.

CAPITAL: Asmara. Other key towns are the ports of Assab and Massawa.

LANGUAGES: No official language. The constitution treats all nine spoken languages equally, but Tigrinya, Arabic and English are mostly used on a day-to-day basis.

HISTORY: Eritrea was an Italian colony from 1889 until 1941. The territory was then administered by the British between 1941-1952. In 1962, the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie declared the annexation of Eritrea as an autonomous entity within the Federal Republic of Ethiopia.

In May 1991, members of the rebel People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) led by Issaias Afeworki -- now president -- won a 30-year independence war against the Ethiopian regime. The conflict was a key factor in the fall of Ethiopia's dictator Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam.

On May 24, 1993, Eritrea officially declared its independence.

However, war broke out again in a bitter 1998-2000 border conflict with Ethiopia, which had lost its Indian Ocean coastline when Eritrea became independent. At least 80,000 people were killed.

A UN force of about 4,200 men was deployed along the border zone after a peace deal, but territorial disputes were never solved. Ethiopia occupies land ruled by an international court to belong to Eritrea. Relations between Asmara and Addis Ababa remain tense.

In March 2012, Ethiopia attacked an Eritrean military base, accusing the country of supporting "terrorist activities" on its territory. Eritrea was also accused and sanctioned by the UN in 2009 for its alleged role in backing Somalia's Al Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgents.

GOVERNMENT: Issaias has served as the president of the one-party state since 1991. The UN says Eritrea has one of the worst human rights records in the world, with rights groups often condemning the arbitrary arrests of journalists and opposition figures.

ECONOMY: Returns from the diaspora play a crucial role in development. Eritrea's economy was greatly affected by long bouts of warfare that took a toll on infrastructure. The country remains one of the poorest in the world, and more than 80 percent of the population is involved in agriculture.

CURRENCY: In 1997, the government introduced its own currency, the Nakfa, to replace the Ethiopian currency that had been in use.

INCOME PER CAPITA: 430 dollars in 2011 (World Bank)

ARMY: The International Institute of Strategic Studies estimates Eritrea in 2013 to have an army of 201,750.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130521/factfile-eritrea