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Eritrean Air force unit escapes country

March 18, 2010 (ADDIS ABABA) - 15 Eritrean air force members have reportedly fled Eritrea, seeking political asylum to an undisclosed government.

An exiled opposition website - assenna.com recently claimed receiving details of the Air force group including list of their names, however declined to publicize details for safety reasons.

“Although loyalty is one of the several criterions to join the Eritrean air force, many of them had already defected the PFDJ regime in a similar manner. The repeated mass defection of its skilled officers has undermined the young Eritrean Air force significantly.’’ It Said.

There is no an immediate comment from officials in Eritrea and the report can’t independently be verified at this point.

The Eritrean Air Force was established shortly after Eritrean War of Independence in 1994. The make-up of the original force was composed of aircraft that were abandoned by the then defeated armed forces of the Derg regime.

Expansion of the Eritrean Air Force (ERAF) did not occur until the Eritrean-Ethiopian War in which the two air forces fought for superiority. In a sort of arms race, Eritrea responded to Ethiopia’s purchase of Su-27s with a purchase of MiG-29s.

In 2000 the ERAF bought eight Su-25s from Georgia, and six more MiG-29’s from Moldavia. In 2003 Eritrea also acquired several Su-27s.

The Eritrean Air Force is a smaller branch of the Eritrean Defence Forces. If confirmed, the latest report would be a big blow to President Issayas Afeworki-led government who repeatedly denied the worsening fleeing away of citizens to neighboring countries.

In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, President Issayas denied any knowledge to the defection of the country’s national football team in December last year in Kenya, Instead he said it was a "fresh news" to him. However it was then confirmed by the ministry of information.

Eritrean borders are heavily patrolled by border guards and thousands of Eritreans risk their life attempting to cross to neighboring countries.

Eritrean refugees who recently made it to Ethiopia told Sudan Tribune that a shot to kill policy is intensified along the border.

Wegahta radio this week reported the killing of 12 Eritrean refugees (all from Asmara’s Mai-temenai sub-city) by border guards up on attempt to cross to Sudan.

The UNHCR recently reported from Sudan that the exodus out of Eritrea is reaching alarming stages.

In protest to country’s mandatory military service, tens of thousands of young Eritreans find eastern Sudan as their main transit to cross to Europe or Israel for better life.

In Ethiopia alone, there are nearly 50,000 Eritrean refugees in three camps, a-third of them being members of the Eritrean military.

According to Administration for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA), the current influx of Eritreans to Ethiopia stands at 1,800 a month.

(ST)