Photo: Courtesy Gulfstream
In an event that is sure to embarrass Eritrea’s long-time ruler, two pilots of that country’s armed forces fled the country on Tuesday, flying in none other than the presidential jet. According to Jazan News, on Tuesday the air force captains flew the aircraft at low altitude across the Red Sea towards Saudi airspace, and were met by two Saudi F-15 fighter jets before landing at a regional airport in the Southwestern city of Jizan.
The two pilots have been tentatively identified as Yonas Woldeab and Mekonnen Debesai — a witness at that airport reported seeing two men disembark from the aircraft, and multiple sources report they’ve
sought political asylum from Saudi authorities.
According to Radio France Internationale, the two individuals are not just any “ordinary” military officers, as they worked directly for President Afewerki and were involved in secret missions to Somalia, including ferrying equipment for the Islamist al-Shabaab militia. The U.S. has in the last few years turned its attention onto Eritrea due to its government’s alleged support of al-Shabab, which is categorized as a terrorist organisation and is recognised as the Somalia branch of al-Qaeda.
The latter claim by RFI seems further corroborated by Eritrea’s dispatching of a high ranking military officer, General Tekle Habteselassié, on an “urgent” mission to Riyadh. A blogger familiar with events claims the aircraft in question is an Israeli-built IAI Astra 1125, a twin-engined VIP jet transport, and the only such aircraft currently known to be operated by Eritrea.
This latest embarrassment comes on the heels of additional high profile defections — in August, the athlete selected to carry Eritrea’s flag during the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games sought asylum along with three other athletes. In 2011, thirteen players from the country’s national soccer team defected while at a tournament in Tanzania.
Eritrea has long been criticised for its poor human rights record, along with the worst ranking for press freedom in the world. The country’s president, Isaias Afewerki, has held that position since
1993, and has been described as “unhinged,” “cruel and defiant.”
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