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Oskanian To Seek Freedom For Armenian Pilots On African Trip

By Hrach Melkumian

Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian will visit Equatorial Guinea next week to press the government of the west African country to release six Armenian pilots jailed there last November on highly controversial coup charges.

Oskanian, whose government insists on their innocence, was on Wednesday keen to temper public expectations from the trip scheduled for February 20. “Let’s not jump into conclusions,” he told reporters. “They will receive me for a bilateral meeting. But that means nothing.”

The jailed men are the aircrew of an Armenian transport plane that was hired by a German airfreight company a year ago to ship cargo to Equatorial Guinea. They were arrested in last March and sentenced to between 14 and 24 years’ imprisonment on November 26 on charges of involvement in a reported plot to topple Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the autocratic president of the former Spanish colony.

Captain Ashot Karapetian and the five other members of the Antonov-12 plane’s crew were convicted along with five South Africans accused of being an advance party of foreign mercenaries arrested in Zimbabwe almost a year ago.

All of the defendants pleaded not guilty to the accusations throughout their trial which a leading global human rights group, Amnesty International, denounced as “grossly unfair.” The German employer of the Armenian pilots had earlier told RFE/RL that they are “200 percent innocent.”

The Armenian government strongly condemned the prison sentences after unsuccessful attempts to secure their release. President Robert Kocharian twice wrote to Obiang last year, suggesting that the two governments, which have no diplomatic relations, sign an extradition agreement that would pave the way for Armenians’ repatriation.

Armenian officials also pledged to exert pressure on Obiang’s regime through international organizations and did not rule out the possibility of taking the case to an international court of justice. “We will not leave Equatorial Guinea’s government alone,” a senior Armenian diplomat dealing with the issue said in December.

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