ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - Ten French tourists have been kidnapped in northern Ethiopia by unknown people, a businessman and a tour operator who work in the region said.
The tourists were in a convoy of four vehicles in Dalol, 800 kilometers (500 miles) northeast of Addis Ababa, traveling to salt mines in the Afar region when they were kidnapped on Thursday, said the businessman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
One of them escaped, got to another group of tourists and made a satellite phone call to authorities in the area to report the kidnapping, which took place around 4 p.m. (1300GMT), the businessman said.
Bereket Simon, special adviser to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, said that he was checking into the situation, but could not confirm anything as yet.
In Paris, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei said French Ambassador Stephane Gompertz in Addis Ababa was trying to verify the report with Ethiopian officials.
A tour operator, also aware of the details of the incident and who has tourists in the area, said the group was assumed to be kidnapped, but that could not be confirmed.
The operator, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that the tourists were clients of Origins Ethiopia, a new tour agency specializing in Afar, and officials of the company had told him that they have been unable to contact the tourists.
Origins officials did not immediately comment.
The visitors traveled in two groups, the operator said, one group of three cars and 11 people and the second of two people in two cars. The tourists traveled with two armed police and an Afar guide, he said.
They 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 lakes and were supposed to return to Hamedali, but have not shown up, he said.
Oliver Jaehnel, a German journalist filming in the area, said he and his crew heard from an Ethiopian businessman there that tourists had been kidnapped, but they did not have details.
Bandits and a small Afar rebel group operates in the area the tourists visited, which is known for its difficult terrain. The government requires all convoys to have a minimum two cars and always travel with armed guards.