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 organization and is recognized as the Somalia branch
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 criticized 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.”