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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Seven Air Force members defect to Eritrea

December 1, 2005 (TEL AVIV) - Seven Ethiopian Air Force officers who ended a three-month training in Israel were on Tuesday flown to the Eritrean capital of Asmara after their request for political asylum was accepted. An eighth airman couldn't be found. Air Force sources informed Ethiomedia the defectors were Ethiopian nationals, and not Eritrean. "There may be one or two Ethiopians of Eritrean stock," the source said. "The rest are Ethiopians and their defection is an expression of their rejection to the Meles regime." The eight arrived in Israel some three months ago to receive training in un-manned air-vehicle technology. Three days ago, they abandoned their airbase in Israel and ended up seeking asylum in Eritrea.

The Meles Zenawi regime had tried to capture the defecting officers. "The Ethiopians were on a wanted list in an Israeli newspaper," the source said. "The pilots had learned a lesson from Djibouti where two defecting pilots wer forcefully handed over back to the government in Addis. This time, the officers wanted to act fast like their fellow brothers in Belarus did."
Eritrean ambassador to Israel, Tesfamariam Tekeste, said the soldiers wanted to go to Asmara after their training ended in Israel. He said his government granted asylum immediately and were flown to Eritrea Tuesday night.

The ambassador said he let soldiers stay at his home and consulted his government, the UN Refugee Agency and the Israeli Foreign Ministry. After consultations Eritrea's government decided to allow the Ethiopian defectors into its territory, because of being of Eritrean origin.
On Wednesday the ambassador leased a private plane and flew the soldiers to Eritrea.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry was surprised by the developments and emphasized that Israel was not involved in any way in the defection.
A top TPLF intelligence officer was among those Air Force members who defected to Eritrea. The list includes:
1. Lt.Tewodros Belihu 2. Lt. Zerihun Tesfaye 3. Lt. Fasika Kelemework 4. Lt. Habtamu Ermias 5. Lt. Andualem Tadesse 6. Lt. Michael Berhe 7. Lt. Dawit Milion have already arrived in Eritrea. The whereabouts of the eighth, Lt. Fikremariam Teklay, remained unknown.


"In Israel we were surprised and we had nothing whatsoever to do with this whole episode," Reuters news agency quotes foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev as saying. "Foreign nationals entered Israel legally and foreign nationals exited Israel legally," he said.

These are not the first defections of Ethiopian servicemen this year. In July, three airmen defected to Djibouti - although two were subsequently returned home and the previous month, eight airmen asked for asylum in Belarus.

A peace agreement in 2000 ended a war between Ethiopia and Eritrea and led to a ruling on the border by an independent commission. But Ethiopia has not yet withdrawn its forces from the town of Badme, which was awarded to Eritrea.

In the past few months, Eritrea has imposed restrictions on the activities of the United Nations peacekeeping force patrolling the border buffer zone and both sides have reinforced their military positions.
A BBC report has been included in the above news.

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