Vehicles seen shot-up, Britain's special forces reported on the ground

Vehicles in which five missing Britons were traveling before disappearing apparently kidnapped while touring a volatile region along Ethiopia's border with Eritrea were seen shot-up and abandoned by the side of the road Monday in a remote village.

In what appears to be a chilling glimpse into the group's mysterious kidnapping last week, an Associated Press television cameraman saw the two British embassy vehicles in Hamedali, the last staging post before the region's famous salt lakes. A line of bullet holes could be seen along the doors of the vehicles, which still had luggage, shoes and mobile phones inside. No blood was visible. British investigators at the scene refused to comment.

In London, the Foreign Office confirmed that the two cars were part of the convoy in which the missing five Britons were traveling.

The tour group, which also includes 13 Ethiopian drivers and translators, went missing Thursday while traveling in Ethiopia's Afar region, a barren expanse of salt mines and volcanoes 800 kilometers (500 miles) northeast of the capital, Addis Ababa. The Britons are employees of the British Embassy in Addis Ababa or their relatives.

There was no word on who was behind the kidnapping.

Residents of the regional capital, Mekele, said they had seen and spoken to members of Britain's elite special operations forces in the region, working to secure the Britons' release. British media, citing unnamed defense officials in London, reported that planning was under way for a possible military rescue operation.

The Guardian newspaper reported that two British special forces soldiers, described as being in a "liaison" role, were in the area. The Independent newspaper said British special forces in the region were preparing for an armed rescue should diplomatic efforts fail. The Times said the British Ministry of Defense had been asked to draw up a hostage-rescue plan soon after the five disappeared.

"We can't comment on anything like that," said a Foreign Office press office in London, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with department policy.

The Foreign Office also refused to comment on reports that British officials were seeking to contact Ethiopians in the group who either escaped or were released. Late Saturday, the state-run Ethiopian News Agency said five of the 13 Ethiopians in the group were found near the border with Eritrea.

"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 in the Ethiopian capital Monday. Teams in London and Ethiopia were doing everything possible to get the facts, he added.

Communication and travel into Afar are extremely difficult. The region is not heavily traveled by foreigners in part because of its proximity to Ethiopia's disputed border with archrival Eritrea although the moonlike landscape draws adventure tourists. Travelers are required to have armed guards.

Two Ethiopian government officials have said Eritrea was responsible, which Eritrea denies. On Sunday, Ethiopian officials downplayed the allegations, saying they were still investigating, reports AP.

Relations between the countries have been strained since Eritrea gained independence from the Addis Ababa government in 1993 following a 30-year guerrilla war.

Bandits and a small rebel group operate in Afar, where the famous Ethiopian fossil of Lucy, the earliest known hominid, was discovered in 1974.

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