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Italy’s PM visits Eritrea to pursue ‘rapport’ with leader

Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, foreground, arrives at the airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018 for a bilateral visit to the country. The two parties will have bilateral discussions on trade, investment, and other matters according to Ethiopia's Prime Minister's office. (AP Photo)

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Italy’s prime minister made a rare visit to Eritrea on Friday to support its surprising new peace with neighboring Ethiopia as the international community waits to see what happens next in one of the world’s most closed-off nations.

Premier Giuseppe Conte said the visit was aimed at backing the peace process, not to make any specific requests. Eritrea is a major source of migrants heading toward Europe, with over 7,000 arriving in Italy last year. Arrivals have dropped to just above 3,000 this year.

“It is important that also the Western world creates a rapport with the Eritrean president,” Conte said in Ethiopia before his departure.

Eritrea’s information minister said Conte and President Isaias Afwerki, who has led the country since independence from Ethiopia in 1993, agreed to “enhance the ties of cooperation and partnership … within a wider regional framework.”

Conte praised the “new positive dynamics” that would being a “new age of prosperity” in the Horn of Africa region and said Italy was ready to do its part in promoting investment, education and training, the minister, Yemane Meskel, said in a Twitter post.

Interest is growing in Eritrea and its strategic location on the Red Sea in the months since Ethiopia’s reformist new prime minister announced his country would accept a peace deal bringing two decades of bloody border tensions to an end.

Ethiopia and Eritrea restored diplomatic ties in July, bringing fresh international attention, including business interest, to both countries. Landlocked Ethiopia, one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, has a keen interest in Eritrea’s ports.

On his visit to Ethiopia on Thursday, Italy’s prime minister praised the country as a “pillar of stability” in the Horn of Africa region and “warmly” encouraged Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to continue with the sweeping political and economic reforms that have been announced since Abiy took office in April.

The two leaders discussed how to work together on investment, trade and infrastructure development as well as migration issues.

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