NAIROBI, Kenya (AP)

16/12/09

The 12 Eritrean national team players who defected during a tournament in Kenya last week claim they cannot return home because they will be killed, according to a senior Kenyan government official on Wednesday.

The players say they swore an oath to the Eritrean government before leaving the country that they would not defect, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to release the information.

The official said the 12 have applied for an asylum seeker’s pass, the first stage in a long vetting process to determine if they deserve refugee status. The process could take up to three months.

The 12 failed to board a plane from Nairobi with the rest of Eritrea’s squad on Saturday after having competed in the Senior Challenge Cup.

Some of the 12 players entered a government office Wednesday to apply for refugee status. They were dressed in the official Eritrean football team tracksuits, with the country’s name emblazoned on the back.

Nicholas Musonye, the secretary general of the Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations, said this is the third time Eritrean players have gone missing in events organized by the council, with up to a dozen disappearing during a tournaments that were held in Tanzania in 2006-07.

The incident underscores the harshness of life under the regime of President Isaias Afwerki, a former rebel leader who led Eritrea to independence from Ethiopia in 1993 but has since turned dictator. Strict government controls on the economy, media and religion in the nation of more than five million people have forced thousands to flee.