ADDIS ABABA, 18 July (IRIN) - The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, appealed on Friday for access to three Ethiopian air force men who allegedly defected to neighbouring Djibouti.
UNHCR said it was increasingly concerned that the airmen - two pilots and an engineer - could have been returned to Ethiopia against their will.
"I would like to reiterate UNHCR's deep preoccupation regarding the situation of the three Ethiopian pilots who may intend to seek asylum in Djibouti where they recently arrived," Kamel Morjane, assistant high commissioner, said in a letter to Djibouti's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mahamoud Ali Youssouf.
He added: "I would highly appreciate your assistance in this issue because it will be essential so that UNHCR, in collaboration with the government of Djibouti, can find an appropriate solution in conformity with international refugee law."
The three Ethiopians allegedly flew their Ethiopian military helicopter to neighbouring Djibouti around 10 June, said UNHCR. It contacted the Djibouti government on 26 June seeking access to the men to determine if they wished to seek asylum.
The agency said it had held meetings on Thursday with authorities in Djibouti, but was unable to get clarification on the men's fate, adding that there were "conflicting reports" on their whereabouts.
"Despite early indications from some government officials that we would be able to meet the Ethiopians, we still have not seen them and are growing increasingly concerned that the pilots may have been returned to Ethiopia against their will," Ron Redmond, UNHCR spokesman, told reporters in Geneva, on Friday.
Djibouti is a signatory to the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees, which prohibits the expulsion or return of a refugee to a country where his or her life or freedom may be threatened.
"Given UNHCR's long and positive relationship with the government of Djibouti, we hope the government will respond immediately to Morjane's urgent request," Redmond added.
UNHCR said a separate group of eight Ethiopian air force personnel had defected to Belarus in early June and were being processed under the Belarussian asylum system.
Tel: +254 2 622147
Fax: +254 2 622129
[This Item is Delivered to the "Africa-English" Service of the UN's IRIN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. For further information, free subscriptions, or to change your keywords, contact e-mail: IRIN@ocha.unon.org or Web: http://www.irinnews.org . If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Reposting by commercial sites requires written IRIN permission.]
Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2005