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Friday, 9 August, 2002, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Student's daring jailbreak in Eritrea
Semere Kesete Negasi (l) and guard Mahari Yohannes (r)
The escapees walked for six days and nights
An Eritrean student leader has told the BBC of his dangerous trek to Ethiopia after a dramatic escape with one of his prison guards.

Asmara University Student Union leader Semere Kesete Negasi said that after spending a year in solitary confinement he had escaped from a maximum security prison in the Eritrean capital, Asmara.


I came here to save my life

Semere Kesete Negasi
One of his prison guards, Mahari Yohannes, made the journey with him after helping him get out.

Mr Semere was arrested last year with some 3,000 other students after accusing the government of interference in university affairs and refusing to participate in student summer work programmes.

Although the other students were later released, he was not.

The Ethiopia-Eritrea border remains closed following a two-year border war and the area is heavily mined.

No food

"I was detained without any legal grounds." he told the BBC's Network Africa programme.

"I came here to save my life."

They told journalists in Addis Ababa that they walked for six days travelling by day and night.

"It was very terrible, with great hunger," he said.

Asmara cafe
Many young Eritreans are unhappy at a lack of political freedom

He said they had had no food, except for some biscuits, but had been determined to die rather than be captured.

They also carried two grenades and a Kalashnikov machine gun with them but did not use them.

"If anybody approached us to catch us I would have killed them," he said.

He said the Ethiopia army on the border was initially very surprised when they arrived and were not sure whether to believe their story.

Democracy

Eritrea's deputy ambassador to Kenya, Teweldemedhin Tesfamariam, said if Mr Semere really had fled to Ethiopia, it showed the protests for which he was arrested had more to do with treason than democracy.

But Semere, who fought in Eritrea's 30-year war of independence from Ethiopia, rejects labels that he is a traitor by travelling to a country Eritrea still regards with hostility following a two-year border war.

Eritrean soldier
Eritrea and Ethiopia were at war between 1998 and 2000

"I should not be described as a traitor," he said.

"At this moment the Eritrean people are living a very terrible life. They are less than slaves," he said.

There have been calls for a more transparent government and greater democracy since the border war ended in 2000 - particularly from Eritrean exiles.

But no rival political parties are allowed and the present government comprises essentially the same people who won Eritrean independence.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Semere Kesete Negasi on Network Africa
"We were walking day and night... it was terrible"
See also:

30 Oct 00 | Africa
24 Apr 02 | Africa
29 Jun 02 | Country profiles
22 Feb 02 | Africa
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