The 'missing' Eritrean national football team has applied for asylum in Uganda rather than return home, officials said on Wednesday.
"The 18 members have told us their country is not safe for them once they return and they want political asylum," Uganda's junior minister for refugees Musa Ecweru told AFP.
"They are in the hands of the Ugandan government and United Nations and we have given them protection," he added.
Ugandan police were alerted on Monday when the team members disappeared after losing to Rwanda 2-0 in a regional tournament, according to the Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA).
"We have instructed police to call off the search for them because these people are not a threat to Uganda, they say they want protection," Ecweru said.
If the players pass an eligibility test, they will be given refugee status, he added.
Thousands leave the Red Sea nation every month, according to the UN, fleeing conscription and a hardline government that jails critics in harsh desert labour camps, and is ranked worst in the world for press freedom.
In 2007, six national players sought asylum in Angola after a game there, while in 2009, 12 Eritrean national football players sought asylum after a game in Kenya.
Last year, 13 members of Eritrea's Red Sea football club sought asylum in Tanzania.
Eritrean officials did not respond to requests for comment.