Ethiopian Pilots: Goodbye to Belarus

Eight Ethiopian pilots who had sought political asylum in Belarus but were rejected by the Minsk government earlier this week have turned up safe in another European country, a source said Friday.

Their safe route was worked out by their fellow Ethiopians, and were now out of harm's way. The source declined to identify the third country for security reasons.

The pilots who were on a six-month training in Minsk asked for political shelter last month after a post-election violence in their home country left at least 40 Ethiopians dead, and scores injured.

Independent military analyst Alexander Alessin was quoted by AFP as saying the asylum applications posed a particular problem for Belarus, which has extensive military links with Ethiopia. The two countries maintain military agreements worth over $100 million, according to military sources.

The prospect for the safety of the pilots became distressing after Belarus fell under increasing pressure from the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, which used its ambassador to Moscow to facilitate the extradition of the airmen.

The Belarus government initially allowed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Minsk to provide protective custody to the pilots. But as reports of mounting Ethiopian government pressure surfaced, Minsk lifted the custody rights it had given to the local UN agency and barred their English-speaking lawyer from visiting them.

"The pilots were left without any legal protection. They were stranded in no-man's land, with the possibility of being smuggled out of the country by the security forces of either side," the source said.

When news broke earlier this week the Minsk regime had turned down the asylum requests of the airmen, Ethiopians in various countries held demonstrations calling for the respect of international conventions for the rights of political refugees fleeing tyrannical regimes.

In Washington, D.C., which is home to about 300,000 Ethiopians, activists from the community, civic associations as well as former Ethiopian Air Force members called for a fair treatment of the pilots during a demonstration they held Monday in front of the Embassy of Belarus.

Leaders of the Ethiopians met with Belarus Embassy staff during which they handed a petition to Belarus Ambassador to the US, Michail Chvastou, and urged the diplomat to encourage his government to assist the UNHCR to handle the crisis in accordance with international refugee laws.

The Belarussian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko is regarded by the West as the "the last dictatorship in Europe."

Earlier in July Djibouti came under fire from human rights organizations after deporting two of three Ethiopian helicopter pilots who had asked for political asylum following their defiance to government orders to fire on anti-government protesters in Addis Ababa. Though Djibouti Interior Ministry official told a BBC reporter on July 19 that the pilots were repatriated voluntarily, family members dismissed the report, claiming it was a forced deportation.

Sources said the two pilots, Captain Behailu Gebre and Lt. Abiyot Mangudai were tortured severely and limping when they recently appeared before a Military Tribunal at Debre Zeit Air Force base, 32 km south of the Ethiopian capital.n