Relief as hostage son is freed

The parents of a North-East man held hostage for nearly two weeks in Ethiopia spoke of their relief last night at his release from captivity.

Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett

The parents of a North-East man held hostage for nearly two weeks in Ethiopia spoke of their relief last night at his release from captivity.

Malcolm Smart, whose parents live in Newcastle, was one of five people in a British Embassy group kidnapped while on a tourist trip to an isolated geological site on March 1.

They were visiting the Afar region in northern Ethiopia when according to eye witnesses, a gang of 50 men, some armed, ambushed them and marched them towards the Eritrean border.

The hostages' vehicles - a Toyota Land Cruiser and a Land Rover Discovery - were later found riddled with bullets, but still containing luggage and mobile phones.

Mr Smart is employed by the Department for International Development and is the only son of Newcastle couple Brian and Ida Smart. He and his four fellow hostages were yesterday handed over to the authorities in Eritrea by their captors.

They were then taken to the British Embassy in the country's capital Asmara.

Mr Smart snr spoke to The Journal yesterday from the family home in Cleveland Gardens, Heaton.

He said: "We have just heard he has been released. It is great news. We are very relieved. He is our only son."

Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett announced the release of the hostages - who were all British Embassy staff - describing it as "tremendous news" and "a great relief". She said of the released hostages:

"Broadly, they are all in good health. We continue to be concerned about the wellbeing of the Ethiopians who were taken at the same time as the British group."

Mrs Beckett said little was known as yet about the circumstances of their captivity and she had "nothing to confirm" they were held by Afar separatist rebels.

She also paid tribute to British embassy officials who have "worked tirelessly" to secure the release of the hostages.

The other four hostages released yesterday were Peter Rudge, First Secretary at the British Embassy in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa; Jonathan Ireland, a member of the administrative support staff; Laure Beaufils, a French national and member of the Department for International Development; and Rosanna Moore, the wife of the head of the British Council in Addis Ababa.

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.

The village of Hamedali, where the group was attacked, is close to Ethiopia's border with Eritrea and visitors are warned to travel there in convoy with armed guards because of rebels and bandits.

Despite the risks and temperatures of up to 50C, tourists venture to the region to visit its unusual geological formations and salt lakes.

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How the dramatic events unfolded

Thursday March 1: Five British Embassy workers, including Malcolm Smart, are kidnapped in the Afar region on the border of Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Friday March 2: The Foreign Office announce plans to rescue the group, who were on a trip to visit geological sites in the region with Ethiopian drivers and interpreters.

Sunday March 4: Five of the 13 Ethiopians are found near the border with Eritrea. Cobra, the cross-Government emergency committee, meet over the weekend to discuss the crisis.

Monday March 5: Fears for the safety of the group rise after two bullet-ridden and burnt-out vehicles are found by diplomats in the remote north-eastern village of Hamedali. Both still had luggage, shoes and mobile phones inside.

Tuesday March 6: Investigators say they are working "around the clock" to find the party, as the Foreign Office reveals that no-one in the area has yet claimed responsibility for their disappearance.

Thursday March 8: Reports emerge that the group are safe in neighbouring Eritrea, being held by Afar separatist rebels.

Sunday March 11: The Ethiopian Government confirm they have spoken to the kidnappers, but no details about the party are released.

Monday March 12: The burnt-out Land Rover is returned to Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa where British Embassy staff examine it for details which could lead to the group's whereabouts.

Tuesday March 13, 2pm (UK time): Hopes rise of the group being released, although the Foreign Office refuse to comment.

Tuesday March 13, 3.15pm: Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett confirms that the British Embassy staff have been released, although there are still fears about the fate of the remaining Ethiopians. The five Britons are said to be in good health.

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Working to help make life better

Kidnap victim Malcolm Smart works for the Department of International Development in Ethiopia.

Mr Smart, who now lives in Addis Ababa, is the co-chair of a public finance committee working on behalf of DIFD.

His committee manage the budget and review aid provided by the Development Assistance Group (DAG).

DFID's work in Ethiopia is aimed at reducing poverty, by helping the Government implement its own strategy to accelerate and create sustainable development.

Over five years, DFID provided £1.74.6m of aid, but since the post-election violence ended in March 2005, the department has provided aid through basic services grants.

These ensure the Government continues to provide basic services such as education, health, water and sanitation. The grants also support the health service - funding the salaries of doctors and nurses. DFID's aid also aims to ensure families maintain a basic standard of living, get an extra 3.7m children into primary school, improve water and sanitation and maintain roads.

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Violent tensions plague troubled nation

To many, Ethiopia will always be synonymous with famine, but the troubled nation has experienced many hardships in recent decades.

In 1985 Bob Geldof urged us to Feed the World after watching a 1984 BBC news report by Michael Buerk.

But in the years leading up to that famine the country was embroiled in a brutal civil war, and it has been plagued by violent tensions both within and outside its borders in subsequent years.

The kidnapping of five British embassy staff raised fresh concerns about the safety of foreigners in the region.

It is not the first time holidaymakers have been abducted in the Afar area of the country, where the famous fossil of early hominid Lucy was discovered in 1974.

In 1995, rebels from the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (Arduf) admitted kidnapping Italian tourists.

The Arduf has been fighting for years against Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea over lands inhabited by ethnic Afar.

Relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea have been strained since Eritrea formally gained its independence from Addis Ababa in 1993, following a 30-year guerrilla war.

The border between the countries was never officially demarcated, leading to a two-and-a-half-year war that only ended in 2000.

A UN peacekeeping force continues to monitor the tense 620-mile buffer zone between the two countries.

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