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Former cabinet minister Ephraim Sneh brokered the release of two Israeli pilots who had been detained in Eritrea for a month on suspicion of arms smuggling. The pilots returned to Israel Tuesday, after a month of intensive diplomatic efforts.

The two pilots, Yehuda Maoz and Vered Aharonson, worked for the Israeli firm Aviation Bridge, whose operations include airborne delivery services through the use of private planes. The pilots flew to Eritrea with a package for a local Eritrean security company; the package was said to contain spare machine parts, but in fact it contained parts for Kalashnikov rifles.

The pilots contended they were unaware of the actual contents.

The two were detained in Eritrea after it was discovered that customs documents for the package did not match the contents. The Israelis were held at a hotel in the capital Asmara for a month, with armed guards stationed at the door to their room.

Eritrean authorities prevented the Israeli ambassador from meeting with them.
About a week ago, Sneh, a personal friend of Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, traveled to Asmara and asked Afewerki to release the two pilots.

Afewerki reportedly owes his life to Israel, having been flown to Israel 20 years ago to treat the malaria he contracted while commanding guerrilla troops during the civil war in Eritrea.
An official involved in the release of the pilots said that, since that time, Afewerki has considered himself a great friend of Israel.

When Sneh, who was on a private visit to another country in the region, met with Afewerki, he told the president that the two pilots had unwittingly broken the law and did not know what was in the package they had delivered to Eritrea. Afewerki acceded to Sneh’s request.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry had expressed concern that the extended period of detention would be followed by an indictment, and that the pilots would be jailed in Eritrea, further complicating efforts to free them.