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Some 200 Eritrean nationals held a quiet demonstration outside the Defense Ministry offices in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, protesting limitations on their movement imposed by the state.

The protesters, some of the estimated 4,000 Eritreans who have entered Israel illegally, thanked the Israeli authorities and people for their treatment, yet asked that limitations be dropped and that they be recognized as refugees.

One of the protesters said he fled his country after being jailed and tortured for his political opinions. He said he managed to escape prison and arrived in Israel by land via Sudan and Egypt.

Eritrea's ambassador to Israel, Tesfa Mariam, accused the protesters of lying in their claims of political persecution, and claimed Eritrea was a place where "harmonious ties exist between Muslims and Christians."

The Interior Ministry has issued the Eritreans work permits and has not tried to repatriate any of them. However, it refuses to recognize them as refugees.

"The protesters' complaints are unclear," a ministry spokesman said yesterday. "They have been issued work permits, even though they are not recognized as refugees, as a humanitarian gesture."