Addis Ababa – Ethiopia has released 75 Eritrean prisoners of war captured in March during a cross border attack on a military base, officials said on Tuesday.
“The government of Ethiopia believes it is proper to release these captive soldiers of Eritrea and let them go where they want,” government spokesperson Bereket Simon said.
Addis Ababa attacked the Eritrean base in retaliation for the killing of five tourists in Ethiopia’s Afar region it blamed on its arch-rival, although an Ethiopian rebel group claimed responsibility and Asmara rejected the claim.
The soldiers were handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Sunday, Bereket said.
“Ethiopia doesn’t have any interest to keep them here,” he said, but added the move does not signal a change in the icy relationship between the two long-time foes.
“The Eritrean government is adamant and has refused to discuss issues of common concern and there are no actual discussions taking place,” he said.
Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year struggle, but they returned to war in a bloody 1998-2000 border conflict which left at least 70 000 dead.
The two countries remain at odds over the flashpoint town of Badme, awarded to Eritrea by a UN-backed boundary commission but still controlled by Addis Ababa.
Seven of the released prisoners applied for political asylum in Ethiopia, Bereket said, adding that they were free to stay if they wanted.
Tensions flared in January when two Germans, two Austrians and one Hungarian were killed in the attack on the slopes of Ethiopia’s famed Erta Ale volcano in the desolate Afar border region.
Eritrea denied involvement in the incident and did not retaliate after Ethiopia attacked their military base.
The Ethiopian-based Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (Arduf) rebels, fighting a low-level insurgency against “political marginalisation” by Addis Ababa, claimed responsibility. They said they have no ties to Asmara.