06/03/07 (B385-B) Guardian / Vehicles found at Ethiopia kidnap site.

Search teams have
finally reached the remote site in Ethiopia where five Britons and 13 Ethiopians
were kidnapped last week.

Three vehicles were discovered in the village of Hamedela, all of which appeared
to have been damaged by an explosion, but there was no sign of the missing

Elite SAS forces are believed to be on the ground in remote north-eastern
Ethiopia to help secure the release of the five Britons, although the Ministry
of Defence would not officially confirm reports.

Residents of the regional capital, Mekele, said they had seen and spoken to
SAS operators in the region working to secure the Britons’ release.

The kidnapped group went missing on Thursday while travelling in Ethiopia’s
Afar desert, a barren expanse of salt mines and volcanos 500 miles north-east
of the capital, Addis Ababa.

The Britons are employees of the British embassy in Addis Ababa and their
relatives, while the Ethiopians are drivers and translators.

The Associated Press news agency said one of its cameramen had seen two abandoned,
shot-up British embassy vehicles today in Hamedela, a remote village that
is the last staging post before the area’s famous salt lakes.

The vehicles – a Toyota Land Cruiser and a Land Rover Discovery – still had
luggage, shoes and mobile phones inside.

Diplomats have been working frantically in Addis Ababa and remote towns in
the Afar desert.

Foreign Office minister Geoff Hoon said that every effort is being made to
ensure the safe return of the kidnapped Britons.

A team of 10 experts, known as a rapid deployment team, flew in to Ethiopia
yesterday to join the operation.

Eritrea dismissed claims that its soldiers had snatched the westerners in
the Afar desert region of Ethiopia and marched them to a military camp.

The information minister, Ali Abdu, said the claims, made by senior Ethiopian
officials, had been fabricated to make Eritrea look bad.

The Foreign Office said it was in contact with senior members of both the
Ethiopian and Eritrean governments.

Meanwhile, a group of French tourists, who had been missing since Thursday,
returned and said they had not been kidnapped, as previously feared.

The group arrived in Mekele, the Afar region’s capital, and said they did
not have a satellite phone to check in with their tour company.

It was also reported that five of the 13 missing Ethiopians had been found
near the border.

Relations between Ethiopia and its neighbour have been strained since Eritrea
gained independence in 1993 after a 30-year guerrilla war.

Bandits and a small rebel group operate in Afar, where the famous Ethiopian
fossil of Lucy, the earliest known hominid, was discovered in 1974.

The Ethiopian government requires tourists to travel with armed guards when
visiting the region.

The BBC correspondent Adam Mynott said diplomats had been forced to negotiate
by satellite phone from the village of Berahle to gain access to the site,
which is in a restricted zone.

He said British diplomats were carrying out interviews with witnesses in an
effort to find out what happened.

Witnesses spoke of about armed 50 men bursting into the small settlement close
to the Eritrean border in northern Ethiopia.

There was « pandemonium » and a group, along with a number of guides,
were walked north out of the village towards the Eritrean border. Since then
there has been no word from them or their kidnappers.