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UPDATE 1-Eritrean troops lay siege to information ministry

* State TV and radio go off air after siege

* Exiled opposition activists say dissent rising

(Adds opposition activist)

By Aaron Maasho

ADDIS ABABA, Jan 21 (Reuters) - A group of Eritrean soldiers laid siege to the information ministry on Monday and forced state media to announce a call for the release of political prisoners, a senior intelligence official said.

There was no immediate indication it was an attempt to overthrow the government of Eritrea, which has been led by Isaias Afewerki, 66, for some two decades since it broke away from bigger neighbour Ethiopia.

The renegade soldiers forced the director of state television to make an announcement, the Eritrean intelligence official said.

"The soldiers have forced him to speak on state TV, to say the Eritrean government should release all political prisoners," the source told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

There was no immediate official comment.

The United Nations last year estimated that 5,000-10,000 political prisoners were being held in the secretive Horn of Africa country, which is accused by human rights groups of carrying out torture and summary executions.

Dozens of soldiers with two tanks surrounded the ministry building in Asmara, regional diplomatic sources said. They said state television and radio had gone off air.

The gold-producing Red Sea state, which declared independence from Ethiopia after a long war, is one of the most opaque countries on the continent and it restricts access to foreign reporters.

Eritrean opposition activists exiled in neighbouring Ethiopia said there was growing dissent within the Eritrean military especially over economic hardships.

"Economic issues have worsened and have worsened relations between the government and soldiers in the past few weeks and months," one activist told Reuters.

The United Nations' Security Council imposed an embargo on Eritrea in 2009 over concerns its government was funding and arming al Shabaab rebels in neighbouring Somalia - charges Asmara denied.

Gold companies with mines or projects in Eritrea include Sunridge Gold Corp, Nevsun Resources Ltd and Chalice Gold.

(Additional reporting by Tesfa Alem Tekle in Mekele; Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

2013-01-21 14:53:18+00:00 GMT+00:00 (Reuters)