Britain suspects Afar rebels behind Ethiopia kidnap

March 8th, 2007 Print Print Email Email

March 7, 2007/AFP

- Britain Wednesday said that the abduction of a five-member embassy group in Ethiopia last week was likely linked to local rebel groups in the remote northeast Afar region.
“We can’t be categorical, but indications are that it is likely to be an Afar regional problem,” a British Foreign Office spokeswoman who wanted to remain anonymous said. “We are narrowing down the options. I cannot go into details,” she added.The missing five – all linked to London’s embassy in Addis Ababa – and their Ethiopian drivers and translators, disappeared March 1 in the Afar region while on a tourist trip.

Afar is home to rebels calling for a separate state on territory straddling Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Eritrea.

A top Ethiopian police official in Mekele, in the Afar region, Wednesday blamed troops from neighboring Eritrea for the abduction.

“We have been hearing reports that rebels were the ones responsible for the abductions, but as far as I am concerned, it was Shabia [Eritrea] who undertook the kidnappings,” the official said, requesting anonymity.

The British and Ethiopian governments have refused to be drawn on similar allegations from a released captive and an Ethiopian regional official. Eritrea has strongly denied the claims.

Despite a peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2000, the two neighbors have yet to define the status of their 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) frontier.

British officials scoured the desolate, scorching northeast Ethiopian desert near the Eritrean border Wednesday, in a region one official described as “complicated.”

Bandits operate in the Afar region, and travelers are advised to take an armed guard.

“It’s an area with a lot of conflicts. We are trying for them to be listened to,” Paul Ackroyd, head of the Department for International Development (DFID) at the British embassy in Addis Ababa, told journalists Tuesday.

The embassy Tuesday sought to allay fears that the abducted group had been shot after the discovery of their bullet-riddled cars near the Eritrean border last weekend.

“We don’t believe the people were in the vehicles when they were shot at,” an embassy spokeswoman said.

British officials have confirmed that one of those abducted is a French woman working for the British embassy in Addis Ababa, and say that they are acting on behalf of French authorities in their search efforts.

The other captives are three British men and a second woman who has joint British-Italian nationality, according to the Italian foreign ministry.

Tourists visit the Afar region mainly to see the Danakil Depression, one of the lowest and hottest places on Earth known for its salt mines and active volcanoes.

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