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Kampala - Eighteen Eritreans who disappeared from their hotel during a football tournament in the Ugandan capital Kampala in December have been granted asylum in the east African country, a Ugandan official said on Thursday.

Mass defections by Eritrean sports men and women are becoming common as the country is one of the world's most reclusive states where dissent is dealt with harshly.

“They are now recognised refugees,” said Apollo David Kazungu, Uganda's refugee commissioner said of the 18 Eritreans.

“In this case they were talking of forceful conscription and if they were not going (to enlist), they would be arrested and incarcerated, so when they had a chance to run away, they did.”

The Eritreans vanished after losing 2-0 to Rwanda during a Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) tournament in December. The 18 granted asylum included the team's coach and doctor.

In July last year, 13 Eritrean footballers sought asylum in Tanzania and in 2009, 12 members of the national squad disappeared in Kenya after competing in a regional tournament.

Early last year, the United Nations refugee agency estimated there were 251,954 Eritrean refugees and 14,172 asylum seekers spread across the Horn of Africa.

The Red Sea state has a population of about 5.5 million. Last month, dissident Eritrean soldiers with tanks briefly took over the information ministry in Asmara, demanding all political prisoners be freed.

Calm soon returned to the capital but Eritrean opposition activists in neighbouring Ethiopia cite growing dissent within the army, Africa's second biggest, over economic hardships. - Reuters