Kidnapped British embassy staff reported safe in Eritrea

March 10th, 2007 Print Print Email Email

PAUL WILSON SM : DIPLOMATS were today urgently checking reports a group of British embassy staff kidnapped in Ethiopia last week are safe in neighbouring Eritrea.According to the reports, a community leader said the group was “unharmed and safe” and being held by Afar separatist rebels.The group, all of whom are connected to the British Embassy in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, went missing on Thursday last week while on a tourist trip to northern Ethiopia to visit geological sites and learn more about the Afar region.

Foreign Office officials were keen to stress the reports were unconfirmed.

A spokeswoman said: “We are looking into these reports at the moment. We can’t confirm anything at present.”

She also said today that the five missing embassy staff include three Britons, one Italian/Briton and one French person.

On Tuesday, two bullet-ridden and burnt-out vehicles belonging to the group were found abandoned after diplomats reached the remote north-eastern village of Hamedali, where they were thought to have disappeared.

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

Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said yesterday she was still concerned for the group.

“I and my colleagues in government remain deeply concerned. Obviously, this has been a very difficult time for the families of those who are missing”, she said.

“We are in the closest possible touch with the government of Ethiopia, including with Prime Minister Meles (Zenawi), who is offering us every assistance.

“We are also in close contact with other governments in the region and grateful for all the co-operation we are receiving. This includes Eritrea, and I would like to thank President Isaias (Afwerki) for his government’s support and help.”

Hamedali is a popular staging post for intrepid tourists willing to withstand temperatures of 50C to venture into the unique geological formations of the Danakil Depression, including the area’s famous salt lakes. Visitors are warned to travel in convoy with armed guards because of rebels and bandits.

According to witnesses, 50 men burst into the village, some of them armed, and marched a group towards the Eritrean border.

The kidnapped group is also thought to include a number of Ethiopian drivers and translators. British Ambassador to Ethiopia Bob Dewar has said the group may have been the victim of mistaken identity.

Eritrea has dismissed claims its soldiers snatched the group. Information minister Ali Abdu said the claims, were fabricated by Ethiopia to make Eritrea look bad. Relations between Ethiopia and its neighbour have been strained since Eritrea gained independence in 1993 following a 30-year guerrilla war.

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s official spokesman said the Government was still trying to “establish the facts” concerning the reports. “It is important that we take this very carefully for the sake of all those involved,” he said.

The accusation and counter-accusations coming from Ethiopian and Eritrean government officials about the kidnapped persons in the Afar region is also part of a larger and more tragic history of the region’s people.

One of the untold stories of this region is that the Afar people are ruled by not just one, but two totalitarian rulers (Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Isayas Afeworki of Eritrea) who are fighting over a border that the Afar themselves refuse to recognize as it divides their traditional homeland between two states.

The Afar are in some ways like the the Kurds.

In 1993, Meles Zenawi and the TPLF militarily assisted Isayas’s Eritreans People Liberation Front (EPLF) to violently incorporate the northern part of the Afars’ homeland into the Eritrean state against their wishes. The Afar had not supported the Eritrean secession movement that Meles and TPLF did. They did not want their homeland divided between Ethiopia and Eritrea as they wanted to remain united as one people in a united homeland. Thanks to Meles Zenawi, the Afar- like the Kurds-have become an oppressed minority in three countries (Djibouti, and Ethiopia and Eritrea).

Having divided their homeland between Eritrean and Ethiopia, Isayas and Meles proceeded to embroil their respective countries in a devastating war in 1998 over over a border dispute in the Tigray and Afar Regions. Such is the ludicrous and harmful leadership Ethiopians and Eritreans have had to put up with for so long. For the Afar in particular, the border dispute has made the area where the Ethiopians and foreigners were kidnapped an insecure and dangerous war zone.

Furthermore, many Afar have been recently displaced and pushed out from Eritrea into Ethiopia where they continue to languish in refugee camps under horrible conditions. (see earlier post here). This particular atrocity against the Afar people shamelessly did not get the attention it deserved from the Ethiopian people, international agencies or from anyone from the local or international press. In fact, the news reporters from Ethiopia have done a poor job explaining the dire history of this region and seem determined to portray the Afar region solely as a home to a people that are “bandits” and “rebels”. There is also more to the Afar region than just Lucy.

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