MEKELE, Ethiopia, (Reuters) – Ethiopia said on Saturday it was in contact with an armed group that kidnapped five European and eight locals in a remote northern region — but ruled out a military operation to rescue them. “Those who are responsible are being reached through different channels, and we are hoping that these people would be freed unharmed and safe,” Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin told reporters in the northern town of Mekele. Amid speculation British special forces were in the area, Seyoum said a rescue mission was not being prepared.
“We still have not reached that stage. So let’s rule out this option for the moment, because the safety and the security of these people is most important for us,” he said.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, meanwhile, arrived on Saturday in Mekele where British officials and journalists are waiting for news.
The Westerners were seized by an armed band nine days ago during a tour of the Afar region, one of the hottest and most hostile terrains on earth, inhabited mainly by nomadic herders.
As well as eight Ethiopian translators, drivers and guides, the hostages include three British men, one Italian-British woman, and a French woman.
The five are all linked to the British Embassy in Ethiopia.
Seyoum reiterated that the hostages were in good condition despite their captivity.
Local Afar people and some regional officials have said the hostages were marched into neighbouring Eritrea, possibly in the hands of Afar separatist rebels. But Seyoum would not comment on that. “The situation requires patience and utmost care,” he added.
Ethiopian officials and British diplomats are believed to be communicating with the kidnappers via local Afar elders. “It is very indirect. It goes through different channels,” Seyoum said. “We still are trying our best through our contacts … to urge those who are responsible for this kidnapping to release these people safe, and the earlier the better,” he added.
Regional officials initially blamed Eritrea’s military for the abduction, though in recent days they have said it may be Eritrean-backed Afar separatists.
Asmara has repeatedly denied involvement and say the hostages are still in Ethiopia.
The two Horn of Africa neighbours have bitter relations stemming from a 1998-2000 border war and a still unresolved dispute over their common 1,000 km (620 mile) frontier.
The owner of travel company Origins Ethiopia said the kidnappings had hurt tourism to the Afar region, famed for its rock-strewn hills, vast deserts and ancient salt mines. “I’ve just had three cancellations. We’re also having real problems finding drivers to take people there. I pay a lot more than the market rate, but no one wants to go,” Samson Teshome told Reuters. “It is going to take a long, long time for Afar to repair its image.”