Eritrea Navy

Eritrea occupies a key strategic position on the eastern side of the Red Sea, with an extensive sea area including approximately 355 islands. Eritrea lies along a strategic position along the Red Sea and the Straits of Bab al-Mandeb. The entire coastline was taken from Ethiopia after Eritrea broke off and won independence.

The length of its coastline is approximately 2 234 km in total, comprising 1 151 km of coast on the mainland and an additional 1 083 km of coastline to its Red Sea Islands. Eritrea claims a 12 nm territorial sea limit although the exact borders of its territorial sea remain in dispute in some areas.

The Eritrean Navy is a smaller branch of the Eritrean Defence Forces. Africa South of the Sahara in its 2004 report stated that, in August 2002 Eritrea's active armed forces included an army of about 170,000, a navy of 1,400 and an air force of about 800. It is responsible for the security of the entire coastline of Eritrea, more than 1,100 km, as well as the Eritrean territorial waters. The Eritrean Navy was formed from the remnants of the Ethiopian Navy, all of which was based on the Eritrean coast. Substantial Sudanese, Chinese (PRC) and Iranian assistance had gone into the development of the small coastal fleet since early 1992.

Freedom fighting in Eritrea began in 1961, eleven years after the United Nations had placed the territory under Ethiopian administration. Eritrean guerrillas fought a protracted war to liberate their country. Some members of the Ethiopian Navy deserted to the guerrillas in 1977-81, but an Eritrean navy was not created until 1988.

After the Second Congress of the EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front) an offensive force was proposed and created with a base in Sudan. The EPLF armed some motor launches supplied by Saudi Arabia and use them to attack coastal shipping in the Red Sea. They captured some merchant vessels and used their motor lifeboats to augment its Navy.

These forces played a critical role at the Battle of Massawa in 1990 when they sank several Ethiopian warships in the harbor. The EPLF launched a sea-borne assault against Massawa, the main base of the Ethiopian Navy, which fell after a two-day battle (8-10 February 1990). Fenkil is also known as the battle for the Independence of Eritrea, when the Eritrean Marine with small boats attacked big military ships. The war ended in May 1991 with complete victory for the Eritreans and the Ethiopian Fleet fleeing to Yemen and Djibouti.

At the close of the Eritrean War of Independence the balance of the Ethiopian Navy was inherited by this Naval force. Since independence the Eritrean Navy has expanded its fleet of high-speed patrol boats. This branch of the Eritrean Defence Forces served with distinction under the command of then Commander Tewolde Kelati.

The navy had one missile craft as of 2005, along with seven inshore patrol boats, and three amphibious vehicles of unknown serviceability.

The Eritrean navy is headquartered in Massawa. Eritrea also has former Soviet bases located on islands off the coast. Naval bases include Assab (incorporating shiprepair facility); Embaticalla (former marine commando training school); Massawa (traditional EPLF naval HQ); and Dahlak.

Offshore the central Eritrean coast, over 350 islands form the Dahlak Islands Archipelago. The Islands are arid and consist of rocky scrub desert, with some mangroves and salt marshes. The Islands are surrounded by a much larger area of coral reef, seagrass, and sandy bottom environment on a shallow shelf that stretches 30 km offshore in the south, nearly 100 km in the center, and 15 km offshore in the north. Also at the northern boundary of the Dahlak Bank is Saunders Reef.

Only four islands are inhabited. These are Dahlak Kebir, Nora, Oohul and Oissei. There is evidence that Oahlak Kebir, the largest island, and perhaps some of the other islands, supported many more people than live there today. The ancient town of Oahlak Kebir flourished during the Axumite Empire. Dahlak Kebir is also the site of a major naval base, originally built by the Soviets, now operated by the Eritrean Navy. Numerous boats, engines, dilapidated trucks, tanks, and barrels of oil and other unknown substances litter the jetty area on Oahlak across from Nocra Island Naval Base. Considerable seepage of petroleum and potentially toxic chemical wastes may have occurred already, though quantities are unknown. The extent of military activities on the many uninhabited islands is also unknown.

There are a few small islands offshore the Dankalia province in southern Eritrea, Halib Island being the largest among them. The human uses of these islands is concentrated on Hallb Island. The other nearby Islands are reported to be uninhabited. There Is a large boat building facility built there by the Koreans some years ago, but It Is no longer in operation. At independence the Eritrean Navy considered some plans for getting it In production again, or putting it to some other marine Industry related use.

In the early 1990s, when Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia after a thirty-year war, the shipyard on Halib Island suffered from neglect and after that, was used only as a barracks for soldiers.

In 1999 an Australian company, Seachrome Marine International, was conducting a training workshop for 54 Eritrean nationals on Halib Island in the Red Sea, Eritrea (northeastern Africa bordered by Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti). The workshop concentrated on longline fishing gear fabrication. Sea Chrome Marine International is a well-known company in the region and has a history of being one of the largest producers of top quality fibreglass fishing vessels in Australia.

In 1997 the management at Sea Chrome Marine were approached by representatives of the Government of Eritrea, who were interested in purchasing several Australian-made fibreglass fishing boats in two size ranges: 11 metres and 18 metres. They were also looking for a design that would be suitable for the Eritrean navy as an armed patrol boat, primarily to be used for fisheries and coastal surveillance work.

The negotiations took a bright turn for Sea Chrome when the Eritrean Government offered to buy the entire company. The package that was agreed upon included moving Sea Chrome’s entire physical plant to Halib Island in Assab Bay, Eritrea and in hiring, on a contract basis, a large proportion of Sea Chrome’s Australian workforce for a period of six years.

In less than two years’ time, the shipyard, which is operated as a joint venture between Sea Chrome and the Government of Eritrea, has been fully restored and has produced several vessels including five 11 m and one 18 m longline boats. One 11 m version is rigged for trawling. They have also completed several 10 m and 17 m patrol boats, some of which have been exported to neighboring African countries.

In the recent years, the Eritrean Naval Force has been seriously weakened by the continuous defections of its officers to Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Mismanagement and tyrannical system of the PFDJ regime is the main cause of the mass defection.

As of 2013 the head of the navy was an ethnic Afar. In August 2013 an Eritrean relief association in exile called on the international community to immediately intervene in the recent mass murders of Eritrean navy members. Based in Ethiopia, the Red Sea Afar Relief Association (RSARA) accused the international community of turning blind eye to the atrocities committed by the Eritrean government against ethnic Afar minorities. Some 108 Afar members of the Eritrean navy were massacred by the country's border security guards along the Yemen coastline as they attempted to escape.

In January 2014 Eritrean naval forces forcibly boarded and diverted a merchant vessel sailing past its territorial waters. The Saudi-owned MV Marzooqah, which displays a Togolese flag, was reported to be anchored at the Eritrean port of Massawa. The motive behind the rather bizarre operation by the Eritrean navy remains unclear. EU Navfor confirmed that MV Marzooqah, a small container vessel said to be hijacked by Somali pirates Saturday, was in fact boarded by Eritrean forces.“We can confirm that it was not pirates that boarded the ship, but the Eritrean Navy,” said an EU Navfor spokesman.

The Fisheries Proclamation identifies the Ministry of Fisheries of Eritrea as the responsible agency for managing fisheries in the country. The Ministry is therefore responsible for management, research and development and enforcement activities. However, the Fisheries Proclamation allows for ‘authorized officers’ to be empowered from other public agencies, thus allowing the Eritrean Navy to be actively involved in day to day enforcement activities. However, the Ministry of Fisheries retains ultimate legal responsibility for such activities.

In the industrial fishery, management measures are enforced by on-board observers and inspections by the Eritrean Navy while local village and regional-level cooperatives are active in ensuring compliance with these management measures. It is reported that current compliance with management measures is very high although some illegal and unlicensed fishing apparently occurs in more isolated areas of the country.

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