Sunday, December 04, 2005

Jerusalem Fears Crisis with Ethiopia Over Soldiers' Defection

Haaretz -- Israel is working to prevent a diplomatic crisis which could harm its defense ties with Ethiopia following the defection of eight Ethiopian officers and soldiers to Eritrea via its embassy in Ramat Gan.

The eight Ethiopians had spent three months in Israel on a training program designed to teach them to operate weapons systems. Last Tuesday, the group left the program and were granted diplomatic asylum by the Eritrean ambassador to Israel, who subsequently arranged to have the soldiers flown to Eritrea in a private jet which he chartered.

The eight, who are of Eritrean origin, said upon landing that they had defected in order to reunite with their families.

A short time prior to the flight, the Eritrean embassy informed the Foreign Ministry of its intention to transport the group by plane to Eritrea. Israeli border authorities dispatched an Amharic-speaking officer who asked the soldiers if they were departing Israel willingly. The soldiers - whose training program was hosted by a private company in central Israel which specializes in developing unmanned aerial drones - replied that they sought to reunite with their families.

Immediately following the defection, the company hurriedly filed a motion with the Tel Aviv District Court requesting a media gag order preventing publication of the company's name. The petition was granted and will be in effect for thirty days. Haaretz intends on appealing the court's ruling.

The company had signed a $7 million arms deal with the Ethiopian air force. Defense Ministry officials fear that the Ethiopian government, which views Israel as being the party responsible for keeping the soldiers in its custody, will cancel the deal and refrain from signing future defense contracts with Jerusalem.

The Israeli embassy in Addis Ababa is undertaking efforts to persuade Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government that Israel has no involvement in the matter.

"They left Israel from their own free will," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said. "We had no chance to hold them up or to prevent them from leaving the country."

Ethiopia and Eritrea are in the midst of a long-running border conflict. Three years ago, the two sides agreed to a ceasefire and the stationing of a UN international force in the region.

Rising tensions between the two countries recently have stoked fears of renewed fighting.

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