- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2007

MEKELE, Ethiopia — At least a dozen European tourists were kidnapped in remote northeastern Ethiopia, a barren expanse of volcanoes and ancient salt mines where bandits and rebels operate, diplomats and local businessmen said yesterday.

The tourists — between seven and 10 French citizens and five Britons — were traveling in four cars when they were seized Thursday in Dalol, 500 miles northeast of Addis Ababa, said a businessman and a tour operator who work in the area. They asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

As required by the Ethiopian government, the groups were traveling in the Afar region with armed guards. The region is not heavily traveled because it is so remote, but the otherworldly landscape draws adventure travelers.

Bandits and a small rebel group operate in the Afar region, which is known for its difficult terrain and roasting heat. The average annual temperature is 94 degrees, but temperatures often soar. The area is where the famous Ethiopian fossil of Lucy was discovered in 1974.

Ethiopian police said 13 Ethiopians were among those kidnapped.

“The 13 Ethiopians kidnapped together with the foreigners were people of the Afar region and have been working as drivers and translators,” according to Reuters news agency.

In a statement in London, British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett confirmed that five of the missing were “members of staff, or relatives of members of staff” at the British Embassy in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. She said officials were “doing all they can to ensure that the situation is resolved peacefully. We are also coordinating with other governments.”

Britain was sending a 10-member crisis team to Ethiopia, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office said. A government official said it appeared French and British nationals were being held in separate groups.

Dominique Gautier, spokesman for the French Embassy in Addis Ababa, arrived yesterday in Mekele, the regional capital of the Afar region, but said he had no details.

A French television crew that was also traveling in the area turned up safe in Mekele yesterday, said Samson Teshome, head of Origins Ethiopia, a tour agency specializing in Afar.

One of those kidnapped was Rossanna Moore, the Italian-born wife of Michael Moore, director of the British Council in Ethiopia, a diplomat said.

The tourists left Mekele on Sunday for a two-day drive to Hamedali, a remote village that is the last staging post before visiting the salt lakes, the tour operator said. Then they went on a two-hour drive to Dalol to visit the salt mines and were supposed to return to Hamedali.

In 1995, rebels from the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front kidnapped Italian tourists, but released them weeks later. The group has been fighting for years against Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea over lands inhabited by ethnic Afar.

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