ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- US soldiers flew two endangered cheetah cubs to this Ethiopian capital yesterday, after instigating their rescue from a village where a restaurant owner had held them captive and abused them.
The male and female cubs, whom the soldiers had named Scout and Patch, were released on the grounds of the Ethiopian president's official residence after their 680-mile journey from the eastern hamlet of Gode, in the Ogaden.
''This is the first kind of rescue of animals, let alone cheetahs, that we have done," said Sergeant Leah Cobble, 26, of Washington, as she cuddled the two cubs at Bole International Airport before handing them to a government veterinarian, Fekadu Shiferaw.
The saga of the cubs started last month when US counterterrorism troops, carrying out humanitarian work in the Gode region, found that the animals' owner was keeping them tied up with ropes around their necks at his restaurant and forcing them to fight each other for the amusement of patrons and village children. One cub is blind in one eye.
The soldiers alerted the Ethiopian government and a US-based cheetah rescue organization, drawing international attention to the cubs' plight. They also tried to persuade the restaurant owner, Mohamed Hudle, to hand over the cubs, but he wanted $1,000 for each animal.
That sum amounts to 10 times the average income in this impoverished nation of 77 million people in eastern Africa.
Fekadu, the veterinarian, intervened. He flew to the village Saturday, confiscated the cubs, and handed them over to US forces for transport. The vet said that the owner had not been paid for the animals, and that both cheetahs had received antibiotic treatment and appeared to be in good health.
''Had we not had the help of the US military, it would not have been possible to rescue these animals," Fekadu said after arriving with the cubs aboard the US plane.
The cheetah is endangered worldwide because of a loss of habitat, poaching, and other factors, according to the Cheetah Conservation Fund, which is based in Cincinnati.
Keeping wild animals is illegal without a license, but Ethiopia's wildlife laws are rarely enforced. Fekadu said the cubs eventually may have been sent to the Middle East as part of the wildlife trafficking trade in this part of Africa.
Mohamed said he bought the cubs from poachers who had kicked the female cub, Patch, in the face, blinding her.
The cubs will now live at the National Palace, home to President Girma Woldegirogis, along with three rescued lions and some vervet monkeys.
But a palace animal keeper, Kura Tulu, said further financial help may be needed.
There is an annual budget of only $3,500 to look after all the animals at the palace, Kura said.
US soldiers in the Horn of Africa are part of a task force that provides intelligence-gathering help, tries to bolster cooperation and border protection, and carries out projects -- digging wells, building bridges and schools.
The effort is aimed at improving the US military's image among Muslims in the region.
''This is not the usual kind of support we offer," Cobble said of the rescue of the two cheetahs. ''This was a way to support the Ethiopian authorities and local leaders and we were happy to do that.
''It has turned out very well for everyone, but mostly the cheetahs," Cobble added.
Soldiers said the cheetahs, riding in a cardboard box, purred throughout their flight from Gode.
''The cheetahs really brought the soft side out in the troops," Cobble said. ''They were all cooing over the cats like children."