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Fears grow for missing Ethiopia tourists

Story Highlights

• Five Britons and a number of Ethiopians feared kidnapped in remote area
• UK sends crisis team to Ethiopia to try to locate the missing tourists
• Five of the 13 Ethiopians found near the border with Eritrea
• French tourists reported to be "safe and well" by their tour operator
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(CNN) -- The search is continuing for five British tourists and a number of Ethiopians feared kidnapped in a remote area of the country.

The UK and Ethiopian governments were combining their efforts a day after Ethiopia reportedly accused neighboring Eritrea of snatching the group and taking them to a military camp over the border.

The state-run Ethiopian News Agency said late Saturday that five of the 13 Ethiopians in the tour group had been found near the border with Eritrea, but it was not clear whether they had escaped or were released.

The Eritrean government denied Eritreans were behind the kidnapping, with spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel branding the reports "crazy." The British Foreign Office did not confirm the report, and the Ethiopian ambassador to the UK refused to "finger point."

The group was touring the remote Afar region when it went missing on Thursday.

The area is a barren expanse of ancient salt mines and volcanoes 500 miles north-east of the capital, Addis Ababa.

Relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea have been consistently strained since Eritrea gained independence from the Addis Ababa government in 1993 following a 30-year war.

Communications to Afar are difficult, but the moon-like landscape draws adventure travelers.

Esmal Ali Sero, head of the Afar administrative region, said about 25 Eritrean "commandoes" kidnapped the British citizens along with their Ethiopian drivers and translators on Thursday night.

A senior Ethiopian official in the ruling party, who asked not to be named, told the UK Press Association that Eritreans were behind the kidnapping.

He said a herder saw the British group at the Ara-ta military camp in Eritrea and reported it to the Ethiopians. Herders in Afar frequently travel between the two countries.

Tour operators in the area also said they were being told by police that Eritreans in military uniforms kidnapped the Britons and burned down the house where they were staying, along with several vehicles.

A spokeswoman for the British Embassy in Addis Ababa, said she had no information on the kidnappers: "We do not know where they are or who is holding them. We are not prepared to speculate."

Meanwhile, the French Foreign Ministry announced on Saturday that a group of seven French tourists, whose whereabouts had been uncertain for several days, were in the northern Ethiopian city of Mekele and met Sunday with a representative of the French embassy.

No other details were immediately available. Five Britons, who were part of a tour group, have been missing since Wednesday in northwestern Ethiopia, a British official said Saturday. All are members or staff or relatives of members of staff at the British embassy in Addis Ababa.

"They were not kidnapped but they heard there had been some trouble so they avoided the area. That is why we thought they had been kidnapped, because we had lost contact altogether," said Samson Teshome, head of the Origins Ethiopia tour group.


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