British investigators looking into the disappearance of five Britons affiliated with their country's embassy examined two abandoned, bullet-riddled embassy cars in a remote Ethiopian village Monday.
An AP Television News cameraman saw the two vehicles in Hamedali, the last staging post before the region's famous salt lakes. Bullet holes lined the doors of the vehicles, which still had luggage, shoes and cell phones inside. No blood was visible. British investigators at the scene refused to comment.
In London, the Foreign Office confirmed the cars were part of the missing Britons' convoy.
The tour group, which included 13 Ethiopian drivers and translators, disappeared Thursday while traveling in Ethiopia's Afar region, a barren expanse of salt mines and volcanoes 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.
"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.
Two residents of Mekele, which at 60 miles from Hamedali is the nearest large town, said members of Britain's elite special operations forces were there. The residents spoke on condition anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, but were familiar with military matters.
British media, citing unidentified defense officials in London, reported that planning was under way for a possible military rescue.
Britain's The Guardian newspaper, citing unidentified defense sources, 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.
The Foreign Office declined comment on the reports, but a spokesman said the discovery of the vehicles was distressing.
"Obviously, it is very distressing to see, and this highlights the seriousness of the situation," he said on the government's customary condition of anonymity.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett refused to go into details of the investigation, saying "the safety of those people is of paramount importance to all of us."
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.
Armed guards a requirement
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 played down the allegations, saying they were still investigating.
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.