By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Two Swedish journalists were released by Ethiopia on Monday after being pardoned earlier in the day by the government which had jailed them for assisting an outlawed rebel group, a diplomatic source told Reuters.
The source said the journalists were released from prison in the afternoon and had boarded a plane bound for Sweden.
"They have boarded the plane already, they were released a few hours ago," the Western diplomatic source told Reuters at Addis Ababa airport.
Other sources at the airport confirmed to Reuters that the plane had departed with the journalists on board.
Reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson were arrested in July, 2011, after entering the country from neighboring Somalia with fighters from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebel group.
A government source told Reuters earlier on Monday that the two had been pardoned along with more than 1,900 other inmates, adding that the decision was approved before the death of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died on August 20.
"These journalists submitted their petition to the late Prime Minister before June and ... (President Girma Woldegiorgis) arrived at a decision to grant pardon to them," Justice Minister Berhan Hailu told a new conference.
"Within 24 hours they have to leave the country."
Schibbye's wife Linnea said she was awaiting confirmation from Sweden of her husband's pardon. The Swedish government has not made any comment.
Schibbye and Persson were sentenced to 11 years in jail by an Ethiopian court in December for helping and promoting the ONLF. Some of Ethiopia's Western allies, including the European Union and United States, said they were concerned over the verdict.
The pair were acquitted of terrorism related charges after the court found they were not involved in carrying out any attacks.
Addis Ababa often grants mass pardons and announces the decisions ahead of major holidays, in particular the Ethiopian New Year which is celebrated on September 11.
Relations between Ethiopia and Sweden had become increasingly strained in the two years preceding the journalists' court case. Some diplomatic sources said the Ethiopian government had been rankled by Sweden's perceived backing of Ethiopia's opposition.
Ethiopia's opposition leader Birtukan Mideska, who was convicted of treason after violence broke out following a presidential poll in 2005 and then pardoned, was jailed again in 2008 after he had flown to Stockholm and publicly disputed Addis Ababa's version of the pardon.
Birtukan was released in 2010, four months after presidential elections, and is now in the United States.
Sweden has been critical of Ethiopia's human rights record.
Ethiopia has detained about 150 people, including some 10 reporters, since legislation designed to tackle the activities of rebel groups that have links with al Qaeda and Eritrea was passed in 2009.
In July, Addis Ababa sentenced a prominent blogger and five other exiled journalists to between eight years to life on charges of conspiring with rebels to topple the government.
Berhan said he was not aware of any pardon requests from those cases.
(Additional reporting by George Obulutsa in Nairobi, and by Anna Ringstrom and Mia Shanley in Stockholm; Editing by Richard Lough and Michael Roddy)