Israeli pilots ‘unaware’ of arms cargo, released by Eritrea
Pilots had told Eritrean authorities that they were carrying spare machine parts
Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki Eritrea has ordered the release of two Israeli pilots detained in the country over arms smuggling in a show of friendship with Tel Aviv.
The two Israeli pilots, Captain Yehuda Maoz and First Officer Vered Aharonson, returned to Israel on Tuesday after nearly a month of intensive diplomatic efforts by Tel Aviv.
They were released shortly after former Israeli cabinet minister Ephraim Sneh met the Eritrean President and claimed that the two pilots were unaware of the cargo they were transporting.
An official involved in the release of the pilots said that there was no pressure on Afewerki and that he agreed to their release without any resistance because he considers himself a great friend of Israel.
Sneh and Afewerki have reportedly known each other for years. Twenty years ago when Afewerki was a guerrilla commander during the civil war in Eritrea he contracted malaria. The Israelis saved his life at the time by transferring him to Israel for treatment.
Maoz and Aharonson are former IDF officers employed as civilian pilots by the Israel-based Aviation Bridge Company. The pilots were arrested after an unannounced inspection by Eritrean security forces. The two were held in a hotel in the capital, Asmara, under heavy guard.
The pilots told Eritrean authorities that they were carrying spare machine parts for a local Eritrean security company, but it is believed that they were trying to smuggle Kalashnikov rifles into the country.
Some reports also suggest that the cargo was expected to be delivered to an Israeli company in the region.