After nearly eight years in prison, four Djiboutian prisoners-of-war have been released by Eritrea.
A total of 19 POWs were captured by Eritrea in June 2008 during a border skirmish, but some of them escaped prison in September 2011, said Djibouti's Ambassador to the U.S. and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Mohamed Siad Doualeh. The others remain in detention.
The release was negotiated by Qatar and the freed soldiers were flown back to their home country on March 18 on a Qatar Airways plane accompanied by Qatar’s foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani. Upon landing they knelt down to kiss the ground and were met by dignitaries as a military band played. Later they met with Djibouti's President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh.
Ambassador Doualeh told VOA that the prisoners had been held “incommunicado” over the years without the ability to communicate with their government or families.
“Four Djiboutian families are today rejoicing,” he said. “They have not had any information about their whereabouts, the conditions or the health of their loved ones and today I think it’s a moment of deep relief for them, for all Djiboutians in fact.”
Eritrea lauded the Qatari effort. “Eritrea has been saying from day one that it is committed to the Qatari mediation and the Qatari mediation has seven articles in it and one of them was Article 3 concerning missing persons and POWs,” Ambassador Girma Asmerom, Eritrea’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. told VOA. “So we have been consistent in this issue that the only process is through the Qatari mediation.”
Doualeh said Djibouti holds 19 Eritrean POWs and 267 Eritrean military deserters who were handed over to the UNHCR in 2014. He stressed that the International Committee of the Red Cross and other international organizations have regular access to the POWs.
“They are there, they are safe and they are treated as humanely as you can imagine,” he said.
The U.N. Secretary General and U.S. State Department have applauded the release. The U.S. expressed concern for the welfare of the remaining POWs.
The dispute between the two Horn of Africa countries relates to the shared land border, rights to the Doumeira Islands in the Red Sea and the delineation of the maritime boundary. Doualeh said he believes the boundaries should be based on 1900 and 1901 treaties between then colonial powers Italy and France. Those treaties, he said, would give the contested islands to Djibouti.
Fighting erupted in 2008 between armies from the two countries in a sandy outcropping known as Ras Doumeira.
Doualeh said he is cautiously optimistic that the prisoner release signals a step forward in relations between the two neighboring countries.
“We are hoping and praying. We don’t want to prejudge what the future has, but I think this signals a change,” he said. “What do you say in English ‘Once bitten [twice shy]?’ In French we say, ‘chat échaudé craint l’eau froide.’ We don’t want to doom the peace process. We want a final and lasting solution.”
Similarly, Asmerom said a cooperative relationship between the two nations is the only viable option.
“There is no option B,” he said. “There will be peace and stability in the whole region and Eritrea’s vision is there should be regional integration, there should be free movement of people, there should be free movement of goods, so Eritrea from day one has been committed to regional peace and stability.”