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'Kidnapped' Eritrean man in plea for life

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Warning: You may find graphic descriptions in the audio and text upsetting.

An Eritrean man who says he will be killed by an Egyptian trafficking gang in Sinai unless a $25,000 ransom is paid within days has spoken to the Today programme's Mike Thomson.

Mike was given a mobile number to reach 22-year-old Philemon Semere by an Eritrean pastor who knows his family and has been in direct contact with the kidnappers himself. Pastor Mulugeta Mengsteab had earlier contacted the captive Philemon and checked that he was happy to do the interview.

Philemon began by telling Mike, who made it clear that he was calling from the BBC, that he had been held for four months and been treated very brutally.

"I have not enough food, I have not enough water," he explained. "I've been hit by sticks and burnt by fire with electricity. Daily, burnt by fire and hit by sticks. My body is burning."

Throughout the interview background noises were very audible and it seemed clear that the phone conversation was being conducted on a speaker phone.

The BBC's Mike Thomson
Mike Thomson spoke to the man via mobile phone

Half way through the conversation a man, who said he was in charge of those holding Philemon, butted into the conversation and confirmed that the family will have to pay $25,000 if they want to see him alive again, adding "if he don't give any money I must kill Philemon here."

Over the last few years an estimated 10,000, mainly Eritrean, refugees have been kidnapped by people traffickers, largely based in Egypt's Sinai region. Most disappear on the way to seek a better life in Israel.

During what is often months of captivity the captives are beaten and tortured and their families asked to pay ransoms as high as $40,000 for their release. Those who don't pay are killed. As many as 2,000 are thought to have died in this way.

Since carrying out the interview with Philemon the BBC has contacted the Egyptian authorities and alerted them to his situation. We have also spoken to charities who have taken up his case including Christian Solidarity Worldwide who first drew attention to his story. The BBC have also spoken to a member of Philemone's family who have said they are willing for his case to be publicised and for the interview with him to be broadcast.

It is impossible, from so far away, to verify Philemon's case. But Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and other non-governmental organisations who have studied the kidnap trade, say it bears all the hallmarks of what is now an awful but thriving business in the Sinai region.

Convinced that his family does not have the money to meet the kidnapper's demands, Philemon is clearly becoming desperate as their deadline nears: "Please help. Please help me Mike. I haven't enough money, they will kill me. Please help me."


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