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Thursday, 29 August, 2002, 20:27 GMT 21:27 UK
Ethiopia declares PoWs still missing
Ethiopians flee an attack in 1998
More than 70,000 people died in the war
Ethiopia has dismissed the release of prisoners of war by Eritrea as a publicity stunt and accused its neighbour of holding more Ethiopian prisoners.


The announcement of the partial release of prisoners of war is a public relations gimmick

Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The statement came hours after Eritrea returned 279 Ethiopian PoWs to their home country on Thursday as part of a prisoner exchange programme.

The prisoner handover was supervised by officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who accompanied the men as they crossed the Mereb bridge into Ethiopia.

In a strongly worded statement, the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Eritrea had not released all the Ethiopian soldiers captured during the 1998-2000 border war.

It said it cannot accept the handover as complete.

Gimmick

"In a situation where the whereabouts of many Ethiopian prisoners of war is unknown, the announcement of the partial release of prisoners of war is a public relations gimmick," the statement said.

But Eritrea said some prisoners had decided not to return home and those released were the last Ethiopian prisoners held by Eritrea.

"They are not PoWs. They've been given amnesty and can live here," Elsa Haile, a director at the Eritrean Foreign Affairs Ministry told Reuters news agency.

The PoWs were captured during the bitter two and a half year border war with neighbouring Eritrea, which ended in December 2000.

They have been languishing in a prison camp since the peace agreement was signed almost two years ago, ending the conflict which killed more than 70,000 troops on both sides.

Generally fit

One eyewitness said some of the freed Ethiopian soldiers wept as they ran across the bridge.

Some shouted for joy, others fell to their knees and kissed the ground when they reached their homeland.

Ethiopian militiamen
More than 300 Ethiopians were captured

Meanwhile, more than 1,300 Eritrean prisoners still held by Ethiopia could be freed within a week, according to an ICRC spokesman in Eritrea, Marcel Izard.

"I cannot tell you the date exactly, but we think it might happen in the next week," Mr Izard told the BBC.

The prisoners were met by aid personnel and Ethiopian officials and taken to a Red Cross transit camp at Adwa, near Aksum.

Their condition is reported by witnesses to be "generally fine".

The ICRC reports that a total of 997 Ethiopian and 937 PoWs have so far been repatriated under its supervision.

The Red Cross will now follow up with the Eritrean Government individual cases of what it calls "presumed or alleged prisoners" not so far visited by its officials.

The latest prisoner releases were agreed during a visit to both countries earlier this month by the president of the ICRC, Jakob Kellenberger.

Jakob Kellenberger
Kellenberger visited Ethiopia and Eritrea
Plans to hand over PoWs had been bogged down in disputes over some allegedly missing Ethiopian prisoners.

They include a pilot who had been paraded through the streets of the Eritrean capital of Asmara after his capture.

The Reuters news agency says that it was not clear whether the pilot, Bezabeh Petros, was among those released on Thursday.

Return doubt

The BBC's Nita Bhalla in Ethiopia says sources have told her that many of the 1,300 Eritrean prisoners do not wish to return home, fearing forced military conscription and complaining of a lack of democracy in Eritrea.

In the past two weeks, 122 Eritreans - mainly students and army members - have fled the country and crossed into Ethiopia.

Most say they fled because of "the most unbearable political situation in Eritrea" and "in protest of the endless wave of forced conscriptions of the youth" by the Eritrean Government.

Ethiopian Information Minister Bereket Simon said Ethiopia's first priority was to release all PoWs.

He added that Ethiopia would consult with the ICRC on any Eritrean soldiers who wished to remain in Ethiopia.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Ishbel Mattheson
"Some of the freed Ethiopian soldiers wept as they ran across the bridge"
Red Cross representative Lise Boudreault
"The chapter of prisoners of war is quite finished right now for Eritrea"

Border decision

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TALKING POINT
See also:

13 Aug 02 | Africa
23 Aug 02 | Africa
20 Aug 02 | Africa
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