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Ethiopian Officials Say 5 Kidnapped British Citizens Spotted at Military Camp in Eritrea

Ethiopian officials Saturday accused Eritrean forces of kidnapping five British citizens and 13 Ethiopians who were touring a remote region near the African countries' long-disputed border, then taking the group to a military camp in Eritrea.

The claims could not be independently verified. The group went missing Thursday while traveling in Ethiopia's Afar region, a barren expanse of ancient salt mines and volcanoes 500 miles (800 kilometers) northeast of the capital, Addis Ababa. Calls to Eritrea's government spokesman rang unanswered Saturday.

Relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea have been consistently strained since Eritrea gained independence from the Addis Ababa government in 1993 following a 30-year guerrilla war. Communications to Afar are extremely difficult, but the otherworldly, moon-like landscape draws adventure travelers.

The British Broadcasting Corp., quoting unidentified government sources, said there was a "national security dimension" to the disappearance of the Britons, all of whom are employees of the British Embassy in Addis Ababa or their relatives. The British Foreign Office and the British Defense Ministry would not comment on the BBC report.

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 Thursday night. He cited local investigators.

But a senior Ethiopian official in the ruling party, who asked not to be named, also said 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, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, 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."

Also Saturday, the head of an Afar tour agency said the driver for seven missing French tourists have called his company to say everyone was "safe and well" and had not been kidnapped. Sources including French diplomats and local businessmen had been reporting that the French were kidnapped.

"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. He said it was unclear where the tourists had been since Thursday and why they had been out of contact.

Dominique Gautier, spokesman for the French Embassy in Addis Ababa, said he couldn't confirm the account. "We know many people are saying they are safe but I have no direct contact with them so I cannot confirm this," he said.

Bandits and a small rebel group operate in Afar, where the famous Ethiopian fossil of Lucy, the earliest known hominid, was discovered in 1974. The Ethiopian government requires tourists to travel in Afar with armed guards; the British and French groups were believed to have complied.

Britain sent a crisis team to Ethiopia earlier Saturday in an effort to obtain the release of five Britons.