MEKELE, Ethiopia – Ethiopia's foreign minister said Friday that tribal elders in the remote northeast have spotted a European tour group that went missing last week and that they are "safe and secure" but being held by unknown kidnappers.
"Last evening I heard they are safe and secure," Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin told The Associated Press. "They are in good condition. We don't even know yet who the kidnappers are."
Seyoum said tribal elders had reported the group was in the Afar region, which straddles the border of Ethiopia and archrival Eritrea, and that they appeared to be well. Five employees of the British Embassy in Addis Ababa or their relatives were abducted last week along with 13 Ethiopian drivers or translators.
Four of the Europeans are believed to be British citizens, including one of Italian origin; the other is French. Five of the Ethiopians originally with them had earlier been said to have escaped or been released.
While the region's ancient salt mines and volcanoes offer a spectacular, moonlike landscape for tourists, the area is dangerous because it's along the Ethiopian-Eritrean border. It is also among the hottest places on Earth.
"We have had indications that there are people who are saying the hostages are OK," British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said in Brussels. "Obviously the issue of where they are is still something that's having to be looked at."
Ismail Ali Dero, general manager of the Afar Pastoralists Development Association, said he, too, had been told by his fellow tribesmen that the group was in good condition. He said they were in Eritrean territory.
Eritrea has denied having anything to do with the kidnapping. A call to Eritrean Foreign Ministry rang unanswered Friday.
"The Europeans and Ethiopians who were taken to Eritrean territory are unharmed," Dero told The Associated Press.
Seyoum also said Friday that his country won't use military force to try to secure the tour group's release.
"Their security could be compromised if military options were to be utilized" in a rescue attempt, he said.
On Monday, investigators examined two embassy cars marked by bullet holes in Hamedali, which is the last staging post before the region's famous salt lakes. An embassy official said nobody was believed to have been in the vehicles at the time they were shot up.
The attack did not appear to be a robbery; mobile phones and luggage were still in the cars.
Police in Afar say their investigations show the group was kidnapped by dozens of armed men and taken into Eritrea.
Relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea have been strained since Eritrea gained independence from the Addis Ababa government in 1993 following a 30-year guerrilla war.