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Tuesday, 31 July, 2001, 17:21 GMT 18:21 UK
Ethiopia halts prisoner exchange
Ethiopian Eritrea war
Eritrean civilians flee Asmara airport after an Ethiopian bombing raid
By Nita Bhalla in Addis Ababa

Ethiopia has halted the exchange of prisoners- of-war captured during its war with neighbouring Eritrea.

The government says it has put a stop to the operation until the whereabouts one of its top pilots, Colonel Bezebi Petros are known.

Even if they have killed him we want his remains to be sent back home

Ethiopian Official
His plane was shot down during a bombing raid on the Air Force base in the Eritrean capital of Asmara in June 1998.

The prisoner exchange was part of the peace accords signed in December last year that should see Ethiopian release more than 1,000 Eritrean PoWs.

'Like a trophy'

An Ethiopian official said on Monday that he believed Colonel Bezebi survived being shot down.

"We know he was alive after the plane crashed as the Eritreans paraded him like a trophy around the streets of Asmara," said Yemane Kidane, chief of cabinet at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"We want to know whether he is alive or dead. Even if they have killed him, we want his remains to be sent home," he said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross - which is supervising the release and repatriation programmes of both countries - confirmed that there had been no prisoners exchanged since March.

Soldiers on Eritrea Ethiopia border
There was optimism after the peace deal was signed
The exchange of prisoners began, days after the peace agreement was signed.

Some 629 Ethiopian and 856 Eritrean PoWs were released before Addis Ababa halted the exercise. It is believed that 400 Ethiopians and 1,800 Eritreans still languish in various detention camps awaiting release.

Second capture

Mr Kidane said Ethiopia wanted all its soldiers back, but the issue of Colonel Bezebi had to be resolved first.

"The Eritreans provided us with a list of the Ethiopian POWs in their custody, but Colonel Bezebi's name is not on the list."

This is believed to be the second time Colonel Bezebi has been captured by the Eritreans.

The first was whilst serving in the army of the former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam during the Eritrean liberation struggle of the 1980s. He was later released.

See also:

23 Dec 00 | Africa
First Horn prisoner swaps
18 Jun 00 | Africa
Horn enemies sign peace deal
26 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Eritrea
21 Mar 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Ethiopia
21 Mar 01 | Africa
Timeline: Ethiopia
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