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Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Campaign to free Ethiopia hostages

By Amber Henshaw BBC News, Addis Ababa

Thousands of people have signed up to a campaign to free nine Ethiopians who were kidnapped along with a group of Europeans in Ethiopia more than six weeks ago.
The group were taken in the north-eastern Afar region of the country - one of the hottest, most remote places on earth.
The three Britons, a French woman and an Italian woman with dual citizenship were released two weeks later but the Ethiopians are still being held.
The release of the Westerners was negotiated by Afar elders who handed them over to Eritrean authorities.
Three of the Ethiopians, including Ashinafe Mekonnen and Debash Baye, were working as guides or drivers and the other six were locals from the village of Hameid Eila - not far from the Eritrean border.
Ashinafe and Debash were both orphaned in the 1984 famine in Ethiopia when an estimated 1m people died.
They grew up in an orphanage in the Wollo area in the north-east.
"I am closer to Ashinafe," says one of their friends who knew them in the children's home and asked not to be named.
"He is committed and a hard-worker. He is a guy who likes to enjoy life.
"The longer it takes the more we miss them. We are wondering what is happening to them every minute."
Tour operators in Ethiopia started a campaign to get them freed more than two weeks ago.
One of the organisers, Tony Hickey, says thousands have already signed up to the "Free the Ethiopian Captives".
He said many were Ethiopians but people from as far a field as Spain and South Africa were also backing the campaign.
"The primary objective of this campaign is to get those people freed," Mr Hickey says.
He said they would approach the United Nations or the African Union when they had enough support.
There is still no news about where the Ethiopians are being held or what conditions they are being forced to endure.
The Europeans, who have still not spoken publicly about the kidnapping, say the Ethiopians were unharmed when they last saw them.
The Ethiopian government claims the Eritrean government is to blame but officials in Asmara deny any involvement.
"We are getting more and more concerned about these people," Ethiopia's information ministry spokesman Zemedkun Tekle says.
"We are calling on the international community to put pressure on the Eritreans to release these people."
Diplomatic relations between the countries were cut over a border dispute in 1998 which led to a two-year war.
Despite a UN-brokered peace deal, tensions remain and the issue is unresolved.
Many believe an Afar rebel group with links to Eritrea is holding the men.