Eritrea Frees Israeli Pilots Held on Arms Smuggling Charges

Israeli media reported the release of two civilian Israeli pilots from Eritrean

By Ronen Medzini (Ynetnews.com),

Two civilian Israeli pilots, a man and a woman, are currently on their way back home from Eritrea, where they were held in custody for two weeks on suspicion of arms smuggling, Ynet learned on Tuesday.

The two, Captain Yehuda Maoz and First Officer Vered Aharonson, were taken into custody two weeks ago and remanded to their Asmara hotel, were they were held under heavy guard.

Diplomatic sources told Ynet that there were concrete fears for the pilots’ lives, prompting Foreign Ministry officials to mount frantic efforts for their release. They arrived back in Israel on Tuesday afternoon, unharmed.

According to the available details, both Maoz and Aharonson are former Israel Defence Force (IDF) officers employed as pilots by the Israel-based Aviation Bridge Company.

They arrived in the African country in early August as part of a routine flight, and were set to transport a mechanical part – held in a sealed envelope – to a security company which had hired their company’s services.

The part was discovered during a routine security check at the Asmara airport, but while the two declared it to be a mechanical part, local authorities suspected it was actually meant for weapons construction.

It is believed that the fact that the part was meant to be delivered to a private security company, was what triggered the Eritreans’ suspicion.

According to its website, Aviation Bridge is a private flight operator “specializing in executive, ambulance, and special-needs air transportation.”

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Two Israeli Pilots Released by Eritrea Worked for Ofers

“Yediot Ahronot”: The pilots transported weapons to defend a German vessel owned by Ofer Shipping against pirates.

By Globes’ Correspondent,

Eritrea has released two Israeli pilots, Vered Aharonson and Yehuda Maoz, whom it held for ten days. Hebrew daily “Yediot Ahronot” reports that they had transported weapons and munitions to Eritrea for a German ship owned by Ofer Holdings Group’s Ofer Shipping Group to defend it against Somali pirates.

The pilots flew to Eritrea on July 29, after notifying Israeli air traffic control at Ben Gurion Airport that they were going to pick up an injured person in Eritrea. In fact, the plane’s cargo bay carried arms, including Kalashnikov rifles.

The manifest did not list the arms, but other items. The pilots were arrested after an unannounced inspection by Eritrean security forces. Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was worried that the pilots had no authorization, and could have been jailed for years. Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Lieberman ordered a strong diplomatic effort to obtain their release. Following the pilots release, they returned to Israel yesterday.

The Israeli authorities are investigating whether the pilots acted legally and if legal action should be taken against them.

An Ofer Shipping Group spokesman told “Yediot Ahronot” in response, “We do not comment on the security of our ships against pirates.”

The pilots said that they were not arms dealers. (Source)
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Ex-minister Sneh Helps Free Israeli Pilots Held in Eritrea on Arms Rap

The pilots flew to Eritrea with a package for a local Eritrean security company; the package was said to contain spare machine parts, but in fact it contained parts for Kalashnikov rifles.

By Barak Ravid (haaretz.com),

Former cabinet minister Ephraim Sneh brokered the release of two Israeli pilots who had been detained in Eritrea for a month on suspicion of arms smuggling. The pilots returned to Israel Tuesday, after a month of intensive diplomatic efforts.

The two pilots, Yehuda Maoz and Vered Aharonson, worked for the Israeli firm Aviation Bridge, whose operations include airborne delivery services through the use of private planes. The pilots flew to Eritrea with a package for a local Eritrean security company; the package was said to contain spare machine parts, but in fact it contained parts for Kalashnikov rifles.

The pilots contended they were unaware of the actual contents.

The two were detained in Eritrea after it was discovered that customs documents for the package did not match the contents. The Israelis were held at a hotel in the capital Asmara for a month, with armed guards stationed at the door to their room.

Eritrean authorities prevented the Israeli ambassador from meeting with them.

About a week ago, Sneh, a personal friend of Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, traveled to Asmara and asked Afewerki to release the two pilots.

Afewerki reportedly owes his life to Israel, having been flown to Israel 20 years ago to treat the malaria he contracted while commanding guerrilla troops during the civil war in Eritrea.
An official involved in the release of the pilots said that, since that time, Afewerki has considered himself a great friend of Israel.

When Sneh, who was on a private visit to another country in the region, met with Afewerki, he told the president that the two pilots had unwittingly broken the law and did not know what was in the package they had delivered to Eritrea. Afewerki acceded to Sneh’s request.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry had expressed concern that the extended period of detention would be followed by an indictment, and that the pilots would be jailed in Eritrea, further complicating efforts to free them.

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Two Israeli Pilots Freed From Detention in Eritrea

By Barak Ravid (haaretz.com),

After a month of intensive diplomatic efforts, two Israeli pilots who were detained in Eritrea for a month on suspicion of arms trafficking, returned to Israel on Tuesday.

Yehuda Maoz and Vered Aharonson, both worked for an Israeli company called “Gesher Aviri,” or ‘air-bridge’ in Hebrew. They flew to Eritrea to make a delivery which included an envelope containing spare parts. On arriving in Eritrea, the items declared on their customs documents did not match the contents of the envelope.

Foreign Ministry sources stated that the Eritrean customs authorities suspected the pilots of trying to smuggle in spare parts of weapons.

The two pilots were held in a hotel in the capital Asmara for a month, while Eritrean security forces did not allow the Israeli ambassador to visit them. Israel’s Foreign Ministry suspected that the extended period of detention would lead to an indictment, and that the pilots would be jailed in Eritrea.

In recent weeks, heavy diplomatic pressure has been applied on Ertirea by Israel’s ambassador there and by Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem, until the pilot’s release on Monday. Israel’s message to the Eritrean authorities was that the pilots had been negligent in filling out customs forms, but that they had not intended to smuggle weapons parts into the country.

 

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