Mystery of aborted Kenya presidential flight deepens as Eritrea denies role, adds to list of African mid-flight drama

No one quite knows what happened to Uhuru Kenyatta’s flight to the United States.

A diplomatic riddle deepened Wednesday after Eritrea’s government denied a report in a local newspaper that it refused to grant a flight carrying Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta permission to fly over the Horn of Africa country.

Kenyatta on April 24 surprisingly cancelled a week-long trip to the US after his flight was forced to turn back en route to Dubai because of “increased military activity in Yemen,” the Kenyan presidency said.

The Standard, a Nairobi-based newspaper, reported April 27 that the aircraft turned around in Eritrean airspace after failing to notify air-traffic control of its flight route. The controllers ordered the plane to land, or turn back or else it would be brought down, the Standard said, citing sources it didn’t identify.

“We issued the permission in a matter of 20 minutes,” Beyene Russom, Eritrea’s ambassador to Kenya, said in an interview broadcast on Wednesday on KTN, a privately held Kenyan broadcaster and which is a sister firm to the Standard.

Russom further told the rival Daily Nation publication that his country provided entry and exit permits for the aircraft, but the presidential plane did not reach its airspace.

“The aircraft was, in fact, turned away in Ethiopian airspace,” the paper quoted him as saying. 

Ethiopia and Eritrea enjoy deeply strained relations and have no diplomatic ties since 1998. Eritrea, which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after three decades of conflict, fought again with its southern neighbour in 1998-2000.

Kenyatta had been scheduled to attend this week’s Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles. He instead delivered a statement to the conference by video on Wednesday.

No one quite knows what forced the president’s plane to turn back, even as a series of details weakened the Yemen theory.

The plane’s flight path did not include Yemen, while that country had reopened its airspace at the time after weeks of closure following internecine fighting.

National carrier Kenya Airways also confirmed it was overflying Yemeni airspace at the time. 

Kenyan presidency and aviation officials have been tight-lipped over the incident but aviation experts say essential clearance embarassingly appears not to have been obtained.

The country’s Senate has said it will probe the incident, suggesting more intrigue.

Other instances
African leaders have not been immune to mid-air returns. In August 2013 Sudan president Omar al-Bashir’s privately-rented plane was barred from entering Saudi Arabian airspace, forcing him to turn back home.

The Gulf-state said the plane did not have a diplomatic permit as per regulations. But Bashir was said to have been on his way to attend the inauguration of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, whose country maintains tense relations with Saudi Arabia.

In 2011 Bashir’s plane also mysteriously turned back enroute to China from Tehran, where he had attended an anti-terrorism conference, only to return several hours later.

Sudan’s foreign ministry said the plane chose a new route while flying over Turkmenistan while observers cited confusion over a flight plan.

In 2012, a commercial flight carrying former Madagascar leader Marc Ravalomanana was turned mid-flight back to South Africa.

The exiled president, who is currently under house arrest in the capital Antananarivo after he slipped back last October, had sought to return to shore up his presidential run.

In September 2011 former South African ‘caretaker’ president Kgalema Motlanthe’s flight was turned back on to the runway in New Zealand after an emergency light went off.

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