06/03/07 (B385-B) GUARDIAN : Ambassador pleads for help in search for kidnap Britons as wrecked vehicles found – L’Ambassadeur britannique en Ethiopie lance un appel pour obtenir des informations sur les personnels kidnappés, sur un mode émotionnel. (Info lectrice – En anglais)

Britain’s
ambassador to Ethiopia made an emotional appeal for information about the
five Britons snatched from a remote border area last night as efforts to negotiate
their safe release were stepped up.

Foreign Office officials said that progress was being made in the search for
two women and three men who were kidnapped at the end of a adventure tour
on Thursday, with senior diplomats engaged in round the clock talks with the
Ethiopian and Eritrean governments.

All five victims – who cannot be named due to a government reporting restriction
– are members of staff from the British embassy in Addis Ababa, relatives
of diplomats or officials from the Department for International Development.

Speaking yesterday as investigators examined the group’s shrapnel-damaged
vehicles, the ambassador, Bob Dewar, said there were local people who were
“willing and able to facilitate their safe return.”

“We stand ready to hear from anyone with information relating to the
group’s disappearance,” said Mr Dewar, who knows the missing Britons
personally and was speaking publicly for the first time since the kidnapping.
“They are husbands, fathers and sons; wives, mothers and daughters. Their
families miss them terribly and want them home.”

The group had been travelling through the remote Afar region, which is popular
with European adventure tourists, when they were taken by an armed gang from
their compound in Hamedela, a small village just south of the Eritrean border.
A dozen local Ethiopians, including the group’s cook and guide, were also
kidnapped.

When British investigators reached the site around midday yesterday, they
found three partly charred four-wheel-drive vehicles, including a Toyota Landcruiser
and Land Rover Discovery belonging to the tour party. The findings appeared
to corroborate reports from witnesses in Hamedela on Friday that said the
kidnappers had sabotaged the empty vehicles to stop them being used in a chase.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, said the
discovery of the vehicles was “distressing”.

“It underlines the gravity of the situation,” she added.


In Hamedela yesterday, villagers repeated earlier accounts of how dozens of
men in military uniforms had marched the group across the desert towards Eritrea
at 2am on Thursday.

A man who claimed to have been released by the kidnappers was presented to
journalists by local officials. He said his captors wore Eritrean army uniforms.

Like earlier reports that the Britons had been sighted at an Eritrean military
camp, the account could not be verified.

As concern grows about the hostages condition – Afar is one of the hottest
and most inhospitable regions in the world – British officials said it was
still not clear who had taken the group or where they were being held.

SAS liaison officers are on the ground in the region although a Foreign
Office source said there were no plans for a rescue attempt.

Mr Dewar said the abduction may have been a case of mistaken identity
and the investigating team was still “exploring every possibility”.
More staff may be flown out from London to assist with the investigation,
he added.

Although UK officials are in close contact with the Ethiopian and Eritrean
governments, hopes of cooperation between the neighbours is thought unlikely.
Officials from both countries, who fought a border war just seven years ago
and took opposites sides in the recent conflict in Somalia, have accused each
over the kidnapping.

The president of the Afar region in Ethiopia has publicly blamed the Eritrean
military. While the government in Addis Ababa had been more circumspect, it
has done little to dispute the theory that its northern neighbour had planned
the mission as a stunt to attract world attention to the disputed border.
Eritrea claims that Ethiopia broke international law by refusing to allow
an independent boundary commission to demarcate a new border.

Eritrea, which maintains a perpetual state of war readiness due to the continuingh
border dispute, has described accusations of its involvement in the kidnapping
as “crazy”.

Speaking on BBC radio, Eritrea’s information minister, Ali Abdu, said: “They
[Ethiopia] have that kind of habit, to blame Eritrea for whatever things that
happen. I would not rule out that this is some kind of staged drama cooked
up by the regime in Addis Ababa.”

A third theory is that the kidnappers were Afar separatist rebels
who did not realise the value of their hostages.