Kidnap victims 'safe and secure'

Diplomats were last night no nearer tracing the five British embassy staff missing in Ethiopia, despite reports claiming to have located them.

Diplomats were last night no nearer tracing the five British embassy staff missing in Ethiopia, despite reports claiming to have located them.

The Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin said tribal leaders in the remote north-east spotted the group in the Afar region and they "appeared to be well".

He said the group were "safe and secure" and in a good condition. But he added: "We don't even know yet who the kidnappers are."

According to reports, an Afar community leader said the group were "unharmed and safe" and being held by Afar separatist rebels.

Answering questions at the EU summit in Brussels earlier yesterday, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said while there had been indications people said the hostages were "OK", the issue was where the group is.

A Foreign Office spokesman said last night: "We have received a couple of similar reports this week. We are keeping the families informed of any developments.

"Of course, we take any report seriously and we will look into these, but we also treat them with caution."

He said: "The Ethiopian Government is saying that they've had a report about the group and we've relayed this to the families. We're working round the clock still and the safety of these people is of foremost importance.

"We don't believe the Eritreans are complicit in this in any way and we're in constant contact with both the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments.

"They themselves do not see this as a political issue but a humanitarian issue.

"Everyone wants to see a good outcome in this." Earlier Mrs Beckett said: "We have had indications that there are people who are saying the hostages are OK. Obviously the issue of where they are is still something that is having to be looked at.

"We are aware of these reports and we are looking into them.

"We have people on the ground and we are in contact with all of the authorities in the region.

"Everyone is being very helpful and supportive and we are making every effort we possibly can to get these people back safely and as quickly as possible and, of course, we are in touch with their families."

The five - three Britons, one Italian/English and one French national - as well as a number of Ethiopians, went missing last Thursday while on a tourist trip to northern Ethiopia to visit geological sites and learn more about the Afar region.

On Tuesday, two bullet-ridden and burnt-out vehicles belonging to the group were found abandoned after diplomats reached the remote north-eastern village of Hamedali where they are thought to have disappeared.

The vehicles - a Toyota Land Cruiser and a Land Rover Discovery - still had luggage, shoes and mobile phones inside.

The small town of Hamedali is a popular staging post for intrepid tourists willing to withstand temperatures of 50C (122F) to venture into the unique geological formations of the Danakil Depression, including the area's famous salt lakes.

Visitors are warned to travel in convoy with armed guards because of rebels and bandits.

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