updated 3/2/2007 10:55:05 AM ET 2007-03-02T15:55:05

Fifteen European tourists were kidnapped in the remote desert of northern Ethiopia, one of the hottest and most inhospitable areas in the world, a diplomat and people in the area said.

The French Foreign Ministry confirmed Friday that Western tourists have been kidnapped in Ethiopia, but declined to say how many or indicate their nationalities.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said at a press briefing in Paris that officials believe French citizens were among those seized in Ethiopia.

The tourists were in four-vehicle convoy in Dalol, 500 miles northeast of Addis Ababa, traveling to salt mines in the Afar region, when they were kidnapped Thursday, a businessman and a tour operator who work in the area said. The British citizens were believed to be in the convoy as well, the businessman said.

Both spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.

One of those kidnapped was Italian-born Rossanna Moore, wife of Michael Moore, director of the British Council in Ethiopia, according to a diplomat who also spoke on condition of anonymity. Michael Moore refused to comment when reached Friday by The Associated Press.

A British Foreign Office spokesman said officials were aware that a number of Western nationals were reported missing. He said British Embassy staff were urgently checking with their Ethiopian counterparts.

Ethiopia’s government spokesman, Zemedkun Tekle, said officials were struggling to confirm the reports because the region is so remote.

Forbidding region
Bandits and a small Afar rebel group operate in the area the tourists visited, which is known for its difficult terrain and has an average annual temperature of 94 degrees, but it often gets much hotter. The government requires all convoys to have a minimum of two cars and always travel with armed guards.

The tourists traveled with two armed police and an Afar guide, the tour operator said.

The ARDUF has been fighting for years against Ethiopia and Eritrea over lands inhabited by ethnic Afar.

The tour operator said the tourists were clients of Origins Ethiopia, a new tour agency specializing in Afar, and company officials told him that they have been unable to contact the tourists.

Origins Ethiopia officials did not immediately provide comment.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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