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Friday, March 02, 2007

Fifteen foreigners feared kidnapped in Ethiopia

Fifteen foreigners, including 11 French nationals, a Briton and an Italian, are believed to have been kidnapped in a remote and inhospitable area of Ethiopia where separatist rebels operate.

"A kidnapping or kidnappings did take place," French Ambassador Stephane Gompertz told Reuters.

Two groups -- one of 10 French tourists, the other comprising a mixture of nationalities -- disappeared earlier in the week while visiting the arid north-east Afar region considered one of the world's most hostile terrains.

"It seems that the incident or incidents happened two days ago in the evening. At the moment, we don't know which group may be involved or why they have done this," Gompertz added.

Afar separatists started a low-level rebellion against the government in the 1990s, calling for a separate Afar state on territory straddling Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti.

Afar is one of the poorest regions in Ethiopia. Its population is mostly made up of roaming herders and tribespeople who scrape a living with sheep and goats.

The second missing group of five people, thought to be touring the famous Danakil Depression, included one Briton, one French national and one Italian, according to expatriates.

Nationalities of the other two were not immediately known.

One of the lowest and hottest places on earth, and a magnet to adventurous travellers, the Depression is known for its volcanoes, ancient salt mines and unworldly, flat landscapes.

It was not known exactly where the first group of 10 French tourists had been within the Afar region.

'Land of death'
"Tourists have been kidnapped in the area before, but the last time was before the Ethiopian-Eritrean war," said one foreigner tracking the case, referring to a 1998-2000 border war between the Horn of Africa neighbours.

In 1995, nine Italian tourists were captured by Afar tribesmen in the desert, then released two weeks later.

Ethiopia's government said it was aware of this week's incident, but could not confirm if it was a kidnapping.

"The government is monitoring the situation," an Information Ministry spokesperson said, adding that a statement would be released later in the day.

French envoy Gompertz said his mission was seeking to send representatives to the largest nearby town of Mekele later on Friday or Saturday. "We are hoping to see the hostages alive and well as soon as possible," he said.

In London, the Foreign Office, which has a travel warning out on the Afar region, said it was urgently tracking reports of missing Western nationals there.

"We also advise against all travel within 20 kms of the Eritrean border in the Tigray and Afar regions at any time, which remain predominantly military zones," read its travel advice according to the Foreign Office website.

The Afar region was made famous in the writings of British explorer Wilfred Thesiger who once described it as a "veritable land of death" due to its hostile environment.

The area is also the location of some of the earliest ever human remains. The famous three-million-year-old fossilised specimen "Lucy" was discovered there in 1974.

Various small rebel groups operate around all Ethiopia's border regions. Two aid workers for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) -- an Irishman and an Ethiopian -- were briefly kidnapped in the south-east Ogaden region last year. - Reuters

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