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Ethiopia Says it Will Free Vintage Plane Aviators Soon


FILE - A vintage airplane lands during a rally across Africa, at the Giza Pyramids in Egypt, Nov. 13, 2016.

Aviators detained in Ethiopia while retracing a historic flight route along the length of Africa in 24 vintage planes and support aircraft should be freed in a few days, an Ethiopian aviation official said on Thursday.

The Vintage Air Rally crew, flying aircraft that include biplanes built in the 1920s and 1930s, are being held in Gambela, western Ethiopia, after traversing neighboring Sudan.

They have already flown from Europe and through Egypt and plan to end the tour in South Africa. The oldest plane taking part dates to 1928; the oldest pilot is 72.

"They did not have proper authorization," Wesenyeleh Hunegnaw, director-general of the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority, told a news conference in Addis Ababa.

"They are not under arrest. They are safe and will remain in Ethiopia until the review [of their situation] is concluded," he said, adding the group had requested permission to overfly Ethiopia but had not followed rules and had stopped in Gambela without authorisation.

When asked if that review would be completed within the next few days, he said: "Of course" but did not give further details.

The rally organisers said in a statement on Facebook on Wednesday that it was not clear why Ethiopian authorities had kept the aviators at Gambela airport rather than let them stay at a hotel where they had made bookings.

"Still detained," the rally organizer, Sam Rutherford, said in a brief text message to Reuters when asked about their situation, adding that one member of the group needed "urgent hospital treatment" but an ambulance request had been refused.

He did not give more details.

The aviators' aim was to cross 10 countries, making 37 stops in a little more than a month. They had been due to fly to Kenya after Ethiopia.

The organizers said in Wednesday's statement that the British Foreign Ministry was aware of the situation.