Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The government of Eritrea says 52,000 Australian sheep rejected by the Saudis on health grounds were in fact in good health and will be slaughtered and eaten by Eritreans.
The impoverished Horn of Africa country was given the shipload of sheep for free, ending a three-month saga resulting from Saudi Arabia's refusal to take them.
Saudi authorities complained that more than 6 percent of the sheep had scabby mouth disease, although Australian officials denied this, saying the actual figure was below 1 percent, well within agreed limits.
The disease is common in the export of live animals because of the close quarters in which they are kept on the ship. The sheep are exported live rather than as frozen meat because of Islamic ritual killing requirements.
After Saudi Arabia turned down the shipment, Australia tried for weeks to get other countries in the region to take the sheep.
Taking them back to Australia posed serious quarantine problems because of several other prevalent diseases in the Middle East, which they could have contracted while floating around the region.
Fending off demands by animal welfare campaigners to have the sheep slaughtered at sea rather than prolong their ordeal, Canberra was on the verge of taking them back despite the quarantine concerns before it reached the last-minute agreement with Eritrea.
The small country's agriculture minister, Arefaine Berhe, was quoted by a news agency as saying the sheep had been inspected by vets and were found to be in good health.
Their arrival in the Muslim majority country coincides with the beginning of the Islamic fast month of Ramadan. Meat forms an important part of the celebratory iftar meal, which breaks the daily fast, after sundown.
The Australian meat exporter, Livecorp, said in a statement that offloading of the sheep was going smoothly, helped by a six-man Australian logistics team.
A Livecorp representative in Eritrea, Cathy Kennedy, said five independent vets had confirmed the sheep were healthy.
"They're running and jumping as sheep do, and this is testimony to the quality of Australian livestock and to the care they received on board" the ship, Kennedy said.
In Sydney, Livecorp CEO Kevin Shiell said few countries on earth were more deserving of the aid than Eritrea.
"This positive outcome proves we were right in not caving in to demands to slaughter the sheep at sea," Shiell said. "That would have been an appalling waste."
Eritrea became independent from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year struggle by rebels. It was involved in a further, costly war with its neighbor over a territorial dispute from 1998 to 2000, and drought has resulted in serious food shortages.
Fifty-three percent of its 4.3 million population lives below the poverty line.
See Earlier Story:
Shipboard Sheep Plight Prompts Renewed Calls to Ban Live Exports (Oct. 3, 2003)
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