ROME (AP) _ Sixteen Ethiopian soccer players requested political asylum Wednesday, slipping out of their hotel and trudging for miles in sneakers and their team uniforms.

The players disappeared early Tuesday from their hotel in Ostia, a seaside town 12 miles from Rome.

``We had decided some time ago to leave Ethiopia, where there are political, religious and ethnic problems,'' Mohammed Timam, a striker for Ethiopia's national team, said at Rome's police headquarters.

The team was making a stopover in the capital en route to an African Nations Cup game in Morocco.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Lorenzo Galanti, said he could not comment on the asylum request. He said that in previous cases, Ethiopian soccer players were rejected and sent back after their cases were investigated over the course of a few years.

Bekele Bengessa, an adviser at Ethiopia's embassy in Rome, said he was puzzled about the asylum request.

``I don't know for what reasons they can ask for asylum. It is very strange,'' Bengessa said. ``In Ethiopia, there is liberty, freedom, there is freedom of movement.''

Two players, the coach and four team staff members remained behind in Ostia. The embassy said it was arranging to fly them back to Ethiopia.

Ethiopian athletes abroad have refused to return home on a number of occasions in recent years as their country tries to reconcile ethnic differences and solidify democracy after the 1991 ouster of a Marxist dictator.