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