By Tom Miles
GENEVA (Reuters) - A top Eritrean diplomat said human traffickers, not rights abuses, were driving people to leave the impoverished African country, after a U.N. body accused the government of presiding over forced labor, torture and other rights violations.
Ambassador Tesfamicael Gerahtu told Reuters in Geneva on Tuesday there was an international "conspiracy" to tarnish Eritrea, saying Western nations had in part been swayed to act against it by regional rivals.
Eritrea, one of the most tightly controlled countries in Africa, has long accused its much larger neighbor Ethiopia -- with which it fought a 1998-2000 war over a disputed border -- and others in the region of trying to destabilize it.
Ethiopia and Eritrea have regularly traded accusations, while nearby Somalia and Djibouti have pushed for greater U.N. scrutiny of human rights in Eritrea.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR says 5,000 people flee Eritrea each month and many end up being picked up in the Mediterranean trying to cross to Europe. Those who make it often say they are fleeing indefinite military conscription and other abuses.
Tesfamicael dismissed these charges, saying the number of migrants leaving Eritrea was "insignificant" and that many of those claiming to be Eritrean in order to secure asylum were lying. The figure of 5,000 was a manipulated statistic, he said.
"The whole ideological apparatus of the Western countries has been mobilized against Eritrea, believe it or not," he said.
"Human trafficking networks have been established even in the major cities of Western countries."
U.N. refugee officials at camps near Eritrea say they want to discourage migrants from making the perilous and often fatal journey to Europe.
Tesfamicael repeated accusations that Ethiopia was meddling in his country -- something Addis Ababa routinely denies.
"Ethiopia’s belligerent stance, as a way of trying to weaken Eritrea ... and even make regime change in Eritrea, has also been part of this equation," said Tesfamicael.
On Tuesday, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told parliament Eritrea maintained a "belligerent stance" against his country and warned of "scaling up" Addis Ababa's response. He did not say what that might entail.
Tesfamicael came to Geneva to urge the U.N. Rights Council not to give a new mandate to three investigators who produced a 484-page report accusing Eritrea of widespread torture, forced labor and other violations. But their mandate was renewed last week.
Eritrea has vehemently denied the allegations, but the investigation could lead to a referral to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
"We are not worried about that," Tesfamicael said, adding that human rights were used as a weapon to "intimidate" Eritrea.
Some migrants describe military conscription as a form of indefinite servitude, where men and unmarried women alike aged 18 to 50 are forced to serve for meager wages.
Tesfamicael said 100,000 people had been demobilized in the past decade and that demobilization would continue, but he did not say how many were still doing military service.
"We have our whole population defending the country in various ways and in various capacities," he said. "The whole of Eritrea's four million people have always been mobilized, as a small nation, as a young nation, fighting against 90 million Ethiopians."
Eritrea plans to reach a "new level of development" by 2018 and is now writing a new constitution that will be ready in the next three or four years, he said.
Eritrea is also working with several U.N. bodies and various nations including Finland, Denmark, Egypt and South Africa, said the envoy, adding that reforms had to be driven by internal forces, not dictated from outside.
"There is nothing that we want to hide in Eritrea."
(Reporting by Tom Miles; additonal reporting by Aaron Masho, editing by Edmund Blair and Gareth Jones)