Italy's PM heads to Eritrea to pursue 'rapport' with leader

Italy's prime minister is visiting Eritrea to support its surprising new peace with neighboring Ethiopia as the world waits to see what happens next in one of the world's most closed-off nations.

Premier Giuseppe Conte said Friday's visit is 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 has said Conte would discuss bilateral cooperation and "international matters of mutual interest" with President Isaias Afwerki, who has led the country since its independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

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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