At least a dozen Western tourists were kidnapped in remote northeastern Ethiopia, a spectacular yet barren expanse of volcanoes and ancient salt mines where bandits and rebels operate, diplomats and local businessmen said Friday.
The tourists between seven and 10 French in one group and five British citizens in another were seized Thursday in Dalol, 500 miles northeast of Addis Ababa, according to a businessman and a tour operator who work in the area. They asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The region's remoteness made it difficult for the various governments involved to obtain hard facts about the incident, and news organizations have come out with conflicting reports throughout the day.
French news agency AFP has reported that all the tourists had been found unharmed.
However, British broadcaster Sky News has reported that the British Foreign Office confirmed that five members of the staff at the U.K. embassy in Ethiopia were among the tourists abducted, and none of the group had been located.
As required by the Ethiopian government, the groups were traveling in the Afar region with armed guards. The region is not heavily traveled because it's so remote, but the other-worldy landscape draws adventure travelers.
"We can confirm that a group of Westerners are missing in Ethiopia, including a number of British nationals," said Gemma Blackburn, a spokeswoman for the British Foreign Office in London. She said some of the missing have connections to the British Council an educational and cultural institution sponsored by the British government the Foreign Office and the Office for International Development.
Dominique Gautier, spokesman for the French Embassy in Addis Ababa, arrived Friday in Mekele, the regional capital of the Afar region, but said he had no details.
A French television crew that was also traveling in the area and whose members had been out of touch turned up safe in Mekele on Friday, but they were not among the missing tourists, said Samson Teshome, head of Origins Ethiopia, a new tour agency specializing in Afar. The missing Westerners were also believed to be clients of Origins, but company officials would not comment on that.
Bandits and a small Afar rebel group operate in the Afar region, which is known for its difficult terrain and roasting heat. The average annual temperature is 94 degrees Fahrenheit (34 Celsius), but the mercury often soars much higher. The area is where the famous Ethiopian fossil of Lucy was discovered in 1974.
In 1995, rebels from the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front kidnapped Italian tourists, but released them weeks later. The ARDUF has been fighting for years against Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea over lands inhabited by ethnic Afar.
The tour operator said the tourists were clients of Origins Ethiopia, a new tour agency specializing in Afar, and company officials told him that they have been unable to contact the tourists.
Origins Ethiopia officials did not immediately provide comment.
The tourists left Mekele on Sunday for a two-day drive to Hamedali, a remote village that is the last staging post before visiting the salt lakes, the operator said. Then they went on a two-hour drive to Dalol to visit the salt mines and were supposed to return to Hamedali.
Ethiopia's government spokesman, Zemedkun Tekle, said officials were struggling because the area is so remote.