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VOA Reporter Escapes Eritrean Detention

An international press watchdog Wednesday confirmed that a Voice of America journalist arrested and jailed three years ago in Eritrea following a report that contradicted the government has escaped. Cathy Majtenyi reports for VOA from Nairobi.

The head of Reporters Without Borders' Africa desk, Leonard Vincent, tells VOA he is certain that journalist Aklilu Solomon has fled to neighboring Ethiopia.

"I tried to re-confirm that Aklilu had escaped to Ethiopia through my usual sources, and everybody confirmed it," he said.

Aklilu was arrested in July 2003 several weeks after filing a report describing how families of Eritrean soldiers killed in the 1998 to 2000 border war with Ethiopia wailed and cried when the names of the soldiers were read out publicly.

The Eritrean state-run media had reported that the families cheered and chanted when they heard the names of their relatives, proud that their relatives died in the war.

Aklilu was detained for 18 months, and then was put under house arrest.

At the time, Eritrea's information minister told the French news agency, AFP, that Aklilu was arrested and detained because he had not served the obligatory 18 months of national service in the army, a statement VOA management had denied.

Reporters Without Borders' Vincent says Aklilu's case reflects how difficult it is for the press to operate independently in Eritrea.

"It's a consequence of the dreadful climate that has been imposed on the Eritrean society for five years now by the authorities," he said. "Aklilu has suffered a lot. He had been arrested for something really unfair. You see, this is just a consequence, the latest episode of the tragedy of this country sinking more and more into darkness."

At the end of last month, Reporters Without Borders appealed to Eritrean authorities to release at least eight state-owned media journalists the organization says were arrested November 12 and are being held in harsh conditions. The authorities say that the journalists have been released.

In September, the international media watchdog asked the government to provide evidence that three journalists being held since September 2001 are still alive following reports that they had died in detention.

In its press freedom index, Reporters Without Borders ranks Eritrea as being the third worst country in the world for freedom of the press.