Were Ethiopian Airlines ‘bunker busters’ on its way to Eritrea?

Written by Staff Writer, CNN

“The use of commercial air transportation for official business is not new to Ethiopia’s aviation industry,” said Adam DeRuiter, a traveling lecturer in economics at University College London. “It’s used during political crises, most notably in the post-colonial years when there was a bad legal climate.”

“The historical precedent of this is a Saudi Arabian airline delivering arms to Yemen, for example, when the Saudis wanted to support the Saleh regime,” he said.

Migueddich Gebremariam, an air transport expert at Bournemouth University, added that the blockade was likely the “most high-profile incident in its history.”

King Mohammed bin Saud Al-Saud (center) in 1984 after receiving thousands of weapons. Credit: DPA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the government wasn’t happy that we were still able to run its flagships,” he said.

“It did manage to get them out at one point, and I would imagine the government is still in contact with a lot of these people.”

The Boeing B777-200 was en route from Addis Ababa to Kenya when it was allegedly loaded with anti-tank missiles, according to claims made in an interview with aviation journalist Jim Laidlaw — a story that was originally reported by Kenyon Tours , an aviation news website based in Scotland.

The official Ethiopian Airlines Facebook page shows the B777-200 to be a Boeing 777-200. Credit: facebook/Ethiopian Airlines

Clutching a sword, the plane — with its cockpit open — was reportedly forced to make an emergency landing in northern Kenya on January 11, 2018, when a radar plot showed what appeared to be a rocket fire on its path.

The plane departed again that evening, with 256 passengers and 13 crew members. However, the subsequent controversy surrounding the cargo continued to reverberate in aviation circles.

The jet was back in Ethiopian airspace within a month, although the airline’s Facebook page posted an update saying it “does not carry goods that could be used in an unlawful manner to endanger life or pose a threat to national security.”

While there is little doubt that the weapons are legitimate, a former top Ethiopian military officer was quoted by Reuters as saying that the cargo “could have been a type of cluster bomb.”

Cluster munitions, also known as “bunker busters,” spread dozens of small, deadly bombs over a wide area, which can explode almost anywhere once they’re released.

Ethiopian Airlines lists the B777-200 as one of its Global 777 jets. Credit: Ethiopian Airlines

Ethiopian Airlines told CNN that the B777 is an “out-of-service aircraft.” The Boeing planes have a significant number of mechanical problems and features of the aircraft that are no longer up to scratch.

According to a note from 2014 obtained by CNN, the airline had 3,426 serious safety incidents in the five years since it was introduced to its fleet, including 14 of which were classified as “critical.” The airline did not respond to CNN’s request for comment on the breakdown of the statistics.

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