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British Officials Decline Comment on Eritrea Kidnappings


British officials in Ethiopia are not commenting on media reports that a British Special Forces team is in the Horn of Africa, awaiting orders to launch a rescue of five British tourists believed to have been kidnapped in northern Ethiopia. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East African Bureau in Nairobi.

A spokeswoman at the British embassy in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, confirmed that the missing tourists - three men and two women - are embassy staff members and their relatives.

But the spokeswoman, Gemma Blackburn, tells VOA she cannot confirm media reports that members of Britain's elite SAS unit have been mobilized to find them.

"I have seen those media reports. But we do not confirm details of Special Forces," Blackburn said.

British newspapers report that a counter-terrorism team of about 60 soldiers may have already been deployed, either to Djibouti or to Ethiopia, to carry out the mission.

A British crisis team is in Ethiopia to help secure the release of the tourists. The Ethiopian government says it has sent police and military investigators to the country's remote Afar region, where the tourists disappeared last Thursday, along with their 13 Ethiopian guides.

Ethiopia says five of the guides have since been found. It is not yet clear whether they escaped or were released by their captors.

Afar is about 800 kilometers northeast of Addis Ababa and straddles Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti. It was the site of a similar incident in the mid-1970s, when three British tourists and an Ethiopian were captured by an Eritrean rebel group.

On Saturday, the head of the Afar region, Ismail Ali Sero, accused the government in Asmara of being involved in the latest kidnapping. He said that more than two dozen Eritreans in military uniforms abducted the tourists and their guides, and took them to a military camp across the border in Eritrea.

Eritrean presidential spokesman, Yemane Gebremeskel, tells VOA that the claim is "crazy."

"No foreign national, kidnapped or otherwise, is in the area that you mention," he insisted. "People are saying this is close to the border of Eritrea, 37 or 40 kilometers. So, they are trying to associate Eritrea because it is an incident that happened somewhere. If it is coming from Ethiopia, the Ethiopians have their own motives."

The British embassy spokeswoman, Gemma Blackburn, says her government is looking at all possibilities.

"We are not going into detail about what our theories might be. But obviously, we are exploring every option," she said. "We are not ruling anything in or anything out. We are trying to establish the facts."

Relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea have been tense since Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993. The two countries fought a two-year border war between 1998 and 2000 and have frequently accused each other hostile acts.

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