Attack on foreign tourists widens rift between Ethiopia, Eritrea
Five European tourists, touring the spectacular volcanic moonscape of the Danakil Depression, were killed by unknown gunmen. Ethiopia blamed Eritrea, promises tough action.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Nairobi, Kenya
Five western tourists on a trip of a lifetime in East Africa walked into a long-running, albeit low-boil, international conflict and paid with their lives Wednesday.Skip to next paragraph
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The European tour groups were camped out on the lip of a crater after leaving armed escorts at the base. At 1:00 a.m, they were attacked by unknown gunmen. Five tourists -- two Germans, two Hungarians, and an Austrian -- were killed execution style, a diplomatic source said, while several others appear to have been kidnapped. Survivors had to contact a German tour operator to alert the Ethiopian government to launch a rescue mission.
What drew these 20 Europeans out to one of the most remote and inhospitable corners of the earth?
Geology. The area known as the Danakil Depressions is one of Ethiopia's most popular tourist spots. Dozens of tour group operators in Addis Ababa offer tours to the region, which is one of the lowest, hottest points on the earth. Lying close to the northernmost reach of Africa's Great Rift Valley, it is a unique moonscape more than 300 feet below sea level where volcanic and tectonic activity is still actively pulling subterranean plates apart.
Week-long trips cost more than $1,200 per person – sleeping in tents and eating camp-cooked food – and are carried out in convoys with armed guards and never fewer than nine tourists in multiple vehicles.
But the region lies on a political as well as a seismic fault. Scything through the sands is the border between Ethiopia and its arch-foe Eritrea, a frontier both sides fought over for two years in a war that killed 80,000 people. Even today the border dispute remains unresolved.
Wounds from that two-year war, from 1998 to 2000, remain largely unhealed. This week, even before Ethiopian officials knew how many people had died, or even when the fatal shooting of five European tourists in its remote northeastern region of Afar had taken place, they were sure of one crucial detail: It was Eritrea's fault.
"The terrorists came from Eritrea and are trained and armed by the Eritrean government," Communications Minister Bereket Simon said.
Two Germans, two Hungarians, and one Austrian died in the raid by up to 40 attackers in the early hours of Tuesday morning, while two Germans and two Ethiopians are still missing. Other details about the incident on the summit of Erta Ale around 15 miles from the Eritrean border are still murky.
Far clearer is Ethiopia's message to the international community and its renegade neighbor following the attack.
"The Government cannot and should not sit idly by while the regime in Asmara continues to sponsor acts of terror within Ethiopia's territory with impunity," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said yesterday. "It will be obliged to take whatever action is necessary to stop the activities of the Eritrean regime once and for all unless the international community assumes its responsibilities and takes the necessary steps to bring this abominable behavior to an end."