By Kaleyesus Bekele
The Ethiopian government last week released five helicopters with 26 foreign crew members who recently entered Ethiopian air space without legal permission.
The five Russian-made civilian helicopters belong to a leasing company based in Khartoum, Sudan. The leasing company is registered in Sudan and operates in different African countries. The helicopters were leased by the Tanzanian government. Three weeks ago the helicopters departed from Khartoum and were heading to Dar es Salaam.
Sources at the Ethiopian Ministry of Defense told The Reporter that prior to their departure the pilots did not communicate with the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority (ECAA) to secure a fly-over permission. Sources said the pilots wanted to land in Bahir Dar town of the Amhara Regional State to refuel. Since helicopters have limited fuel-carrying capacity they make frequent landings to refuel on long flights. A helicopter consumes up to 800 liters of jet fuel an hour.
It is the ECAA that grants fly-over and landing permits to local and foreign registered aircraft. The authority also allocates flight path. However, sources said the helicopter leasing company got in touch with a broker in Bahir Dar who reported that the helicopters are allowed to land and refuel in Bahri Dar.
The helicopters crossed the Ethio-Sudanese border through the Amhara Regional State. The ECAA air traffic control was monitoring the helicopters with a radar. The Ethiopian Air Force and Air Defense Unit were on full alert. The helicopters were locked by the Ethiopian Air Defense Unit North Regiment.
Sources said since the helicopters were civilian there was no need to intercept and escort them by fighter planes. The helicopters finally landed safely at the Bahir Dar Ginbot 20 International Airport. Immediately, The Ethiopian defense forces escorted the 26 foreign pilots (East Europeans) directly from the helicopters to a detention facility in Bahir Dar. Sources said the Sudanese embassy in Addis Ababa was lobbying for their release.
The Ethiopian National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) was handling the case. The pilots were interrogated before they appeared before the Amhara Regional State High Court in Bahir Dar town accused of entering a sovereign state without permission. “Their intention was to refuel and cross the Ethiopian airspace and to fly to Kenya and then to Tanzania,” sources said. “They made a silly mistake. After confirming their intension they were released,” sources said.
The court released them on bail. The Ethiopian government last week released the 26 pilots and helicopters and they all left the country. Their case is adjourned and they are expected to re-appear before court. “But the case could be solved through diplomatic negotiations,” sources said. The broker who misguided the leasing company is being detained.
Officials of ECAA declined to comment. Officials of the Sudanese Embassy in Addis Ababa were not available for comment by the time The Reporter went to press.
In 2001, Ethiopian Defense force air defense unit shot down a cargo aircraft which entered Ethiopian air space through Tigrai Regional State without a fly-over permission. The cargo aircraft was coming from Eritrea enroute to Mozambique. At that time the cockpit crew did not communicate with the ECAA.
The pilots remained mute when asked to respond by the Ethiopian air defense. The aircraft was leased by an African company from a US-based leasing company. Two European pilots died in the incident. The aircraft was hit by a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile called Volga.