JERUSALEM — More than 150 Eritrean asylum seekers and dozens of police were injured Saturday in Tel Aviv after demonstrations outside an event sponsored by the Eritrean Embassy turned violent, Israeli officials said.

The melee was the latest violence to break out at global festivals to celebrate 30 years of Eritrean independence but which have sparked fury among the opponents of longtime Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, one of the most repressive leaders in the world. Israeli police in riot gear and on horseback struggled to disperse crowds as rioters broke store windows, grappled with officers and smashed vehicle windshields.

At least 16 of the protesters suffered serious injuries in the brawl, according to Israeli media. A hospital said it was treating 11 gunshot victims. Police used rubber bullets and stun grenades to quell the violence, and officials advised residents to avoid the area in central Tel Aviv. The Israeli emergency medical service said it was holding a special blood drive at two hospitals in the city to treat the wounded.

Eritrean asylum seekers living in Israeli Hadar community in Haifa

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was briefed on the situation and ordered police to deploy the forces needed to restore order, according to his office. By late afternoon, police said they had removed most of the protesters from the neighborhood by bus and declared the scene to be under control.

Most of the Eritreans were refugees and asylum seekers who fled forced conscription and repression in the East African country, which Afwerki has led since its independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Some Afwerki supporters were reportedly at the scene, fighting with government opponents.

Police said protesters entered the public hall, smashed chairs and vandalized displays. Police were able to clear the area after morning clashes, but protesters returned in significant numbers in the afternoon and the riot spread.

Similar clashes have flared at recent Eritrean events across Europe and North America. Government critics have sought to use the celebrations as a way to draw attention to the human rights abuses carried out under Afwerki.

In Canada last month, at least two state-sponsored Eritrean festivals were canceled in Toronto and Edmonton after violence broke out among protesters and government supporters. In Stockholm, over 50 people were injured in a brawl outside a similar event.

Earlier, in July, protesters clashed with police outside an Eritrean festival in the German city of Giessen. At least 26 police officers were injured by stones, bottles and smoke bombs protesters used to try to gain access to the venue, German media reported.

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Activists have criticized the events as propaganda for the government, which rights groups call a “one-man dictatorship.” Eritrea has “no legislature, no independent civil society organizations or media outlets, and no independent judiciary,” Human Rights Watch wrote in its annual report this year.

In February, the group warned that the Eritrean government was targeting the families of alleged draft dodgers as part of an intensive conscription campaign related to the war next door in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Eritrea and Ethiopia ended a decades-long cold war in 2018, and Eritrean forces sided with the Ethiopian military in its brutal war with Tigrayan rebels that began in 2020.

Eritrean soldiers have since been accused of carrying out mass killings in Tigray, including the massacre of over 300 villagers in November, just days before a peace deal was made to end the war, according to witnesses and relatives. As Eritrea struggled to fill its fighting ranks, Human Rights Watch said, authorities harassed and detained relatives of those they accused of fleeing the draft.

The worsening repression has led to heightened opposition to the government, and its sponsored events, among the Eritrean diaspora, particularly young people. “Emotions are really, really fragile at this point,” said Semhar Ghebreslassie of Stockholm, 35, a member of the global Eritrean activist group Yiakl.

“And then the regime and its supporters want to dance in front of us and glorify the war that our sisters and brothers were forced to die in,” she said, referring to the festivals the government has held. “They are far from being peaceful,” she said, adding, “They are being used as a propaganda platform for the regime.”

Last month, Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel called those who were disrupting the festivals “asylum scum.” In Israel, Eritrean activists said they warned police that there could be violence Saturday and requested that the event be canceled. “We said there would be violence,” an Eritrean resident told Haaretz newspaper. “They didn’t listen to us.”

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About 18,000 Eritreans live in Israel, according to government figures. They are some of the tens of thousands who have fled Eritrea in recent years, escaping repression that includes forced labor and the possibility of lifelong military conscription.

Eritreans typically fled to Israel across the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, where they were often ensnared in human trafficking networks and forced to pay ransoms for their release, according to rights groups. Israel built a fence along its border with Egypt in 2010, effectively cutting off the flow of African refugees and asylum seekers, mainly coming from Eritrea and Sudan.

Once in Israel, Eritreans and other Africans have no pathway to asylum. Instead, the state classifies those who enter illegally as “infiltrators,” subjecting them to restrictions that limit where they can live and work. The Israeli government has also offered to pay African migrants to leave the country or face prison time if they are caught.

Berger reported from Washington.

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