By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
October 28, 2016 – Two members of the Eritrean air force defected to Ethiopia by flying a military aircraft to Mekelle, the capital of northern Tigray region bordering Eritrea, an Eritrean opposition group confirmed on Friday.
- Eritrea, which borders Sudan and Ethiopia, has been dubbed the North Korea of Africa (HRW)
Speaking to Sudan Tribune, Ibrahim Haron, leader of the Ethiopia based Eritrean opposition Red Sea Afar Democratic organization (RSADO) identified the two pilots as Mebrahtu Tesfamariam and Afework fissehaye.
He said the pilots along with their military jet arrived at Mekelle international Airport on Wednesday at around 10 am.
Haron said Ethiopian fighter jets had accompanied them upon their entrance into the country’s air space.
According to Haron this is the first time for Eritrean air force members to defect to Ethiopia with their military Jet.
It is not yet clear if the defectors have sought political asylum.
In the past few years, dozens of pilots and members of the navy have defected to neighboring countries. This is not the first time Eritrean air force members defected.
In the past few years, dozens of pilots and members of the navy have defected to neighboring countries mainly to Saudi Arabia.
In 2012, two Eritrean military pilots secretly flew President Isaias Afewerki’s plane to Saudi Arabia where they sought political asylum.
A year later, three other members of the Eritrean air force have defected with their fighter jet to Saudi Arabia.
In April the same year, another female Eritrean air force pilot sent by the regime to retrieve the stolen jet from Saudi Arabia has herself defected.
Haron said the latest defections are clear indication of a growing discontent within the Eritrean military.
“This is a big blow to dictatorial Eritrean regime which has increasingly become brutal to hold grip on power” he said.
The opposition group vowed to step up the military struggle to topple current president Issaias Afeworki-led regime in Asmara.
He called on other opposition forces to unite in the struggle to end the regime’s repression and atrocities.
The Eritrean president had been in power since 1991, when the country gained independence from Ethiopia after 30 years of freedom for struggle
The Red Sea nation had never conducted elections since independence nor did it implementem the constitution ratified in 1997.
After the country gained independence President Afewerki has turned the nation into a one-party state.
The Afar opposition group has long been accusing the Eritrean government of intensifying what they allege is an “ethnic cleansing” strategy against Afar minorities.
Haron says thousands of Eritrean Afars had been killed and many others remain in prison.
The reclusive Red Sea nation has one the world’s worst records in terms of human rights and press freedom.
The country is Africa’s foremost jailer of journalists and is known by some human rights groups as a “giant prison”. The tiny nation is believed to be home to up to 10,000 political prisoners.
Every month, thousands of Eritreans immigrate to neighboring countries as a result of political oppression.