Shocking aftermath of Britons' desert terror

By Rob Crilly in HAMEDELAH
TWO 4x4s stand parked at right angles to one another. The Land Rover has had its door ripped open by a grenade, while the other's windscreen has been peppered with bullets. On the far side of this dusty stick-built village, children play around a burnt-out Toyota pick-up.
This was the scene that greeted three British Embassy officials as they arrived in Ethiopia's remote Danakil Desert, searching for five missing Britons.
An empty sunglasses case, an abandoned mobile phone on the dashboard and the diplomatic licence plates were the only clues left by the kidnappers during last Thursday's early-morning raid. Witnesses said about 30 armed men - some of them riding camels - had been involved in the attack.
"I was fast asleep in the hut over there," said a young goatherd. "But all the noise and shouting woke me up.
"I came out to see what was happening and saw the faranji [foreigners] being taken away on foot by men in uniforms. After they were away, they threw a grenade at the car to make sure no-one could follow."
Hamedelah stands in the heart of the Danakil Depression - one of the most brutal environments on the planet.
Temperatures touched 40C yesterday, as a hairdryer wind swept volcanic dust across open expanses of desert.
The few hardy tourists who make it here are rewarded with stunning views of deep ravines, vast salt deposits and lava lakes formed as three tectonic plates converge to produce a series of unique geographical features.
The people who live here have to be tough. Little grows among the grey gravel that passes for soil. Their villages are built from nothing more than sticks and stones. Even camels are scarce.
The men - dressed in loose shirts and sarongs - carry rifles to protect against the ever-present threat of tribal bandits.
British officials from the embassy in Addis Ababa completed the bone-jarring journey to Hamedelah, some 500 miles from the capital, along dried-up river beds and rutted gravel tracks. It had taken them more than a day to travel from the nearest airport at Mekele after being held up by local police awaiting the correct clearance.
Other teams are believed to be scouring Ethiopia's arid north in search of the three men and two women, who were all connected to the British Embassy in Addis Ababa.
The team in Hamedelah examined two of the vehicles and interviewed Ali Mohamed, one of 13 Ethiopians snatched from the village with the Britons.
He said he was woken by a noise at about 3am on Thursday. Rough hands grabbed him as he emerged from his hut and he was beaten.
Men armed with AK-47 rifles and wearing Eritrean uniforms then forced him to walk for two hours towards the Eritrean border.
"When we were a certain distance, they brought the British people," the 20-year-old salt miner said in the local Afar dialect. "It was dark when they arrived, so it was difficult to see their expressions, or how they were being treated."
He was later set free, along with five other Ethiopians.
Mystery still surrounds who took the Britons, and why. Some residents of Hamedelah insisted the attackers wore the fatigues of Ethiopian police and most believe they were bandits who have harassed tourists in the past.
Many questions remain. Why did the local militias not give chase or try to prevent the kidnapping? And why has no-one contacted either the British or Ethiopian governments with demands?
All that is certain is that the five Britons were taken in the direction of the Eritrean border, some three hours hard march away.
For now, British officials prefer to assume nothing.
"If, as has been speculated, the group is being held against their will, it may be they have been victims of mistaken identity," Bob Dewar, the British ambassador to Ethiopia, said.
He added that teams in London and Ethiopia were doing everything possible to find out what had happened.
Official silence
THE Ministry of Defence has declined to comment on reports that special forces personnel from the SAS are in Ethiopia and a Foreign Office spokeswoman would not say whether Britain had sent hostage negotiators to the Horn of Africa country.
Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett refused to go into details of the investigation. She said: "The safety of those people is of paramount importance to all of us."
It has been reported that a squadron of 60 SAS troops has flown to Djibouti, a small country bordered by Eritrea and Ethiopia and close to the desert area where gunmen seized the group.
Djibouti is France's largest overseas military base. It is also host to the US military's only sub-Saharan base.

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