An Eritrean opposition group has confirmed the defection of two Eritrean pilots with their fighter jets to Ethiopia on Wednesday morning. The confirmation came on Thursday after local media reported about the defection of the pilots to the northern Ethiopian city of Mekelle.
“The two pilots flew their small sized fighter jets to Mekelle on Wednesday morning,” Nasredin Ahmed Ali, Spokesman of the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization, told the Associated Press by phone. The spokesman of the biggest Eritrean opposition group that is based in Ethiopia named the two pilots as Afeworki Fisehaye and Mebrahtu Tesfamariam and said they are very experienced pilots within the Eritrean Air Force.
An Eritrean official based in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa said he is not aware of the defections while Ethiopia’s government spokesman, Getachew Reda, declined to comment. However, an eyewitness said Ethiopian jets were flying very low and conducting unusual turns in the city of Mekelle on Wednesday around 10am and looked like they were in a jubilant mood. The opposition spokesman also said the defecting pilots arrived at the city around the same time and were accompanied by Ethiopian fighter jets upon their entry into the Ethiopian air space.
This is the first time that Eritrean pilots defected to Ethiopia with their jets but there have been local reports of the country’s pilots defecting to Saudi Arabia since 2012.
Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bitter border war for two years between 1998 and 2000 that caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Border skirmishes between the two arch- foes happen often but a much bigger war was conducted between the two East African countries on June 2016 that both sides blamed for starting each other.