03/03/07 (B385-A) BBC – Les forces erythréennes condamnent le kindapping de touristes – Eritrean forces blamed for kidnap (En anglais – info lectrice)

forces are behind the kidnap of five British people in Ethiopia, a local official
has told the BBC.

The president of Ethiopia’s northern Afar region said 20 to 25 troops attacked
the embassy officials and their relatives as they slept.

Ismael Ali Sero also said cars used by the sightseers were set on fire in
the raid on their camp early on Thursday. Eritrea denies any involvement.

Mr Ismael said the group was marched to the town of Waime in Eritrea.

The Britons were taken 12-18 miles (20-30 km) through the disputed border
region, he said.

He said money, mobile and satellite phones were also stolen.

The Briton’s tour operator Tony Hickey told the AFP news agency that three
vehicles in which the Britons and 13 Ethiopians were travelling had been found
destroyed in Hamed Ela near the border.

Mr Hickey, who runs the Ethiopian Quadrants tour company, said locals reported
the cars were hit by anti-tank grenade launchers and that one or two Ethiopians
were also kidnapped.

He told the BBC many foreign tourists had visited the area in the last year
and suggested the Eritrean authorities could have acted to « embarrass »
the Ethiopian government.

The UK Foreign Office said it could not confirm the reports.

French nationals ‘safe’

The group of embassy officials and their relatives went missing in the north
of the country, near the Eritrean border, and there has been no contact with
the group for more than two days.

Seven French nationals who had been thought to be among the kidnapped group
are safe and well, the group’s travel company, Origins Ethiopia, has said.

About 10 British officials, thought to include an expert hostage negotiator,
have been meeting at the British embassy in the capital, Addis Ababa, in an
attempt to find the missing Britons.

Ethiopian police said the tourists were kidnapped, along with 13 Ethiopian
drivers and interpreters, about 800km (500 miles) north-east of Addis Ababa.

The Italian foreign ministry told the AFP news agency that one of those kidnapped
had dual British-Italian nationality.

Hostile environment

A search involving the Ethiopian police and army is under way in the Afar
desert region, close to the Eritrean border and one of the hottest and most
barren areas of the world. Bandits and rebel groups operate there.

The owner of travel company Origins Ethiopia, Samson Teshombe, received a
call from one of the seven French nationals thought to have been kidnapped,
who said they were safe and well.

Whitehall officials earlier told the BBC there was « a national security
dimension » to British group’s disappearance.

UK Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said the British government was working
with Ethiopian authorities who were « doing all they can to ensure that
the situation is resolved peacefully ».

The government emergency planning committee Cobra met on Friday to discuss
the issue.

More intrepid visitors to the Afar region like to tour the Danakil Depression,
one of the lowest and hottest places on Earth known for its salt mines and
active volcanoes.

Tourists are advised to travel there with an armed guard.