Two aid workers from French charity Medecins du Monde have been kidnapped while travelling in a remote region along the border between Ethiopia and Somalia. VOA's Peter Heinlein in Addis Ababa reports a rebel group active in the area has denied responsibility for the incident.
Details of the abduction are sketchy. Officials say a group of heavily-armed men captured the two humanitarian workers who were providing aid to victims of the severe drought gripping Ethiopia's Somali region. A spokeswoman at the Medecins du Monde headquarters in Paris, who asked that she not be identified by name, would say only that the incident occurred Monday.
"Two expatriates from Medecins du Monde have been kidnapped in Ethiopia, and that's all. We don't mention the nationality or if they are male or female. We don't say that. We don't communicate more details about that, for the security of our team," she said.
Diplomats and aid agency sources in the Ethiopian capital also asked not to be quoted, but confirmed privately that the kidnap victims were a Japanese woman and a Dutch man.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the kidnapping, and it was unclear whether it occurred in Ethiopia or Somalia. Two officials in Ethiopia's Somali region, known as the Ogaden, flatly denied there had been any recent kidnappings on the Ethiopian side of the border.
The Ogaden National Liberation Front, a rebel group fighting for the region's independence, condemned the abduction, calling it a cowardly act.
A senior French diplomat told VOA the incident might be the work of criminals. Armed Somali gangs have carried out several kidnappings in recent months, often targeting foreigners and humanitarian workers and demanding ransom.
Somalia has been plagued by conflict since 1991, when the dictator Mohammed Siad Barre was overthrown. Three years of failed rains have worsened already severe living conditions on both sides of the Ethiopia/Somalia border.
The United Nations World Food Program this week issued an appeal for an additional $460 million to provide emergency food aid in the Horn of Africa region. Officials say nearly half of the four million people living in Ethiopia's Somali region are facing starvation, and conditions are said to be as bad or worse on the Somalia side of the border.
Aid agencies have declined to describe the situation as a famine, but World Food Program Director Josette Shearan this week said the region is facing the worst humanitarian crisis since 1984, when famine killed an estimated one million people.
Ethiopian officials say they have no way of knowing how many people have died during the current crisis, but humanitarian workers say mortality rates in the worst-affected areas are unusually high, especially among children.