Why Two Eritrean Pilots Went Rogue and Stole Their President's Plane

... and fled to Saudi Arabia, of all places

Eritrean-Pilots-Banner.jpgHawker Beechcraft King Air 200 (Ronnie Macdonald/Flickr)

Until recently, the Eritrean Air Force had a single luxury airplane, an 1970s-era American corporate turboprop. Thanks to a brazen act of defiance, the plane is now in Saudi Arabia. And its pilots, two high-ranking Air Force officers, are attempting to defect from a government that few people seem to want to live under -- even, apparently, among the upper-echelons of its military.

Isaias Afewerki, the country's longtime dictator and the architect of one of the most oppressive states on earth, might have to fly commercial the next time he has to negotiate with his rivals in neighboring Ethiopia, or to convince foreign leaders that his government isn't aiding al Shabaab, the al Qeada franchise that once ruled much of Somalia.

On October 2, the pilots, who belong to an air force with only 350 personnel (down from 850 in 2002, according to the International Institute for Security Studies), flew the plane to Saudi Arabia, where they were met with an F-15 escort before landing outside Jizan. Within the week, an Eritrean delegation, which -- according to both translated Arabic media sources and Meron Estefanos, a prominent Eritrean exile activist and journalist -- included pilots and a Major General in the Eritrean military, landed in Jeddah and attempted to get their plane and pilots back -- unsuccessfully, it would turn out, as the the Saudis have already refused to relinquish the asylum seekers. Their defection is a hard-to-ignore demonstration of how deeply dysfunctional and unpopular Afewerki's regime has become. "These are people considered loyal by the regime and they have planned this and executed it right under the noses of their commanders," Estefanos told me. "Eritreans never used to say anything against their government, even only a few years ago."

This incident could also tank the Afewerki regime's already suffering reputation in the international community. This is a particularly inconvenient time for two high-level officers to make off with the presidential plane. In June, the UN's Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea found that Afewerki's government was violating an arms embargo on Somalia by "maintaining relations with known arms dealers in Somalia," and through "its support for Ethiopian armed opposition groups passing through Somali territory." But the report added that there was no evidence to suggest that his government was still supporting al Shabaab, the primary rationale behind UN sanctions that have been in place since 2009. Even if Afewerki is still facilitating arms flows to groups fighting the Ethiopian government -- the Afewerki regime's bitterest geopolitical enemy -- he is now confident enough in his country's possible rehabilitation to argue that the UN should drop its sanctions regime. (The chances of success are minimal: Over the summer, the U.S. actually tightened its sanctions on Eritrean officials linked to al Shabaab.)

It is entirely possible that two Air Force officers -- pilots who had flown Afewerki on several occasions, according to Saleh Gadi, a dissident journalist and founder of Awate.com -- would know something of the country's continued meddling in Somalia, including the scope of its support for al Shabaab. Somalia, which sits at the mouth of the Red Sea and has been a haven for pirates and militant Islamists, is an area of intense focus and cooperation for the international community. The pilots have dramatically exposed a government that Freedom House included on its 2012 list of the "Worst of the Worst" states in terms of political oppression. And they've created a possible crisis for their now-former bosses.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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