March 20, 2007 / 2:57 PM / 12 years ago

Ethiopian rebels claim kidnap of Europeans

MEKELE, Ethiopia (Reuters) - Separatist rebels from northern Ethiopia have claimed responsibility for kidnapping five Europeans this month, saying it was an attempt to prove they are still active, according to Eritrean state TV.

“ARDUF is still fighting and will go on fighting,” said a spokesman for the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF), a small movement seeking greater autonomy in the barren Afar region straddling Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti.

Suspicion fell from the outset on Afar rebels for the kidnap of the five Europeans and eight Ethiopians. But there had been no direct claim until Monday night’s television broadcast.

After their capture in Ethiopia’s Afar region the three British men, one Italian-British woman and one French woman were all released unharmed last week in Eritrea after 12 days in captivity. The eight Ethiopians are still being held.

“The main reason we took the hostages is because (the Ethiopian government) claims that ARDUF has been wiped out, and we needed to expose the regime’s false propaganda and declare our existence,” added the spokesman in the local Afar language.

The Eritrean broadcast, monitored in the northern Ethiopian town of Mekele, also showed the first footage of the five Europeans being released.

The three men and two women shook hands with and waved to about a dozen armed men in desert military fatigues, before being led away by Afar elders. The five were then shown boarding an Eritrean military helicopter.

While the ARDUF spokesman specifically claimed responsibility for the kidnap of the five foreigners, there was no mention of the eight Ethiopians, who are now the subject of a major spat between feuding neighbours Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Addis Ababa accuses Asmara of holding the Ethiopians, who were working as cooks, drivers and guides for the Europeans, as part of its “terrorist” activities in the region.

Eritrea denies that and says Ethiopia is manipulating the case to try and blacken its name internationally.

The countries fought a 1998-2000 border war that killed some 70,000 people, and have had rocky ties since then.

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