By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
April 15, 2014 (ADDIS ABABA) – The government of Djibouti says it has handed over 267 Eritrean prisoners of war to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), ending an incarceration that began in 2008, when the two neighbouring countries engaged in a territorial dispute.
The announcement on Monday comes after years of international campaigning led by Human Rights Concern Eritrea (HRCE), an exiled Eritrean human rights organisation.
The human rights group had been calling for the immediate release of the prisoners arguing that the prisoners of war (POWs) were forcibly conscripted into the Eritrean army by president Isaias Afeworki’s regime.
According to human right groups, most of the former Eritrean soldiers joined the army in order to deliberately surrender to Djibouti defense forces, hoping to secure refugee status in neighbouring Djibouti.
However Djiboutian authorities refused to free them, suspecting that they might be a threat to national security as the border row between the two East African neighbours remains unsettled.
"We have made them talk to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to facilitate their return to their country, and we’re doing this despite the fact that we never heard of Djibouti’s POWs,” Djibouti presidential adviser Najib Ali Tahir told reporters on Monday.
However an Eritrean activist, Yemane Bereket, who is based in Ethiopia, told Sudan Tribune that if they were returned to Eritrea the PoWs turned asylum seekers might face prosecution at home and called upon the UNHCR to resettle them to a third country for their safety.
Bereket said the Eritreans who were held as POWs opted to join the army as a means to escape political oppression at home including, extra judicial killing, forcible and indefinite national military conscription.
"They fled to escape the unjust and inhumane imprisonment at home only to end up in another prison" he said.
The Eritrean politician further urged Djiboutian authorities to release the remaining 19 Eritrean prisoners of war still kept in detention at at Nagad Detention Centre in Djibouti.
Some of those freed are said to have been military deserters.
Djibouti and the reclusive Red Sea nation of Eritrea engaged in two border wars in 1996 and in 1999 before their latest conflict in 2008 which led to officially breakdown of their diplomatic relations.
Eritrea accuses Djibouti of siding with Ethiopia, Asmara’s longstanding rival.
In 1998-2000 Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bitter border war that killed an estimated 70,000 people.