In an event that is sure to embarrass Eritreaâ€™s long-time ruler, twoÂ pilots of that countryâ€™s armed forces fled the country on Tuesday,Â flying in none other than the presidential jet. According to JazanÂ News, on Tuesday the air force captains flew the aircraft at lowÂ altitude across the Red Sea towards Saudi airspace, and were met byÂ two Saudi F-15 fighter jets beforeÂ landing at a regional airport inÂ the Southwestern city of Jizan.
The two pilots have been tentatively identified as Yonas Woldeab andÂ Mekonnen Debesai — a witness at that airport reported seeing two menÂ disembark from the aircraft, and multiple sources report theyâ€™ve
sought political asylum from Saudi authorities.
According to Radio France Internationale, the two individuals are notÂ just any â€œordinaryâ€ military officers, as they worked directly forÂ President Afewerki and were involved in secret missions to Somalia,Â including ferrying equipment for the Islamist al-Shabaab militia. TheÂ U.S. has in the last few years turned its attention onto Eritrea dueÂ to its governmentâ€™s alleged support of al-Shabab,Â which is categorizedÂ as a terrorist organization and is recognizedÂ as the Somalia branch ofÂ al-Qaeda.
The latter claim by RFI seems further corroborated by Eritreaâ€™sÂ dispatching of a high ranking military officer, General TekleÂ HabteselassiÃ©, on an â€œurgentâ€ mission to Riyadh. A blogger familiarÂ with events claims the aircraft in question is an Israeli-built IAIÂ Astra 1125, a twin-engined VIP jet transport, and theÂ only suchÂ aircraft currentlyÂ known to be operated by Eritrea.
This latest embarrassment comes on the heels of additional highÂ profile defections — in August, the athlete selected to carryÂ Eritreaâ€™s flag during the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic GamesÂ sought asylum along with three other athletes. In 2011, thirteenÂ players from the countryâ€™s national soccer team defected while at aÂ tournament in Tanzania.
Eritrea has long been criticized for its poor human rights record,Â along with the worst ranking for press freedom in the world. TheÂ countryâ€™sÂ president, Isaias Afewerki, has heldÂ that position since
1993,Â and has beenÂ described as â€œunhinged,â€ â€œcruel and defiant.â€