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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.

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Girma Asmerom, Eritrea's ambassador to the African Union, Girma Asmerom, denied Eritrean involvement in the matter. Eritrea's ruling party, which allied with Ethiopian rebels to overthrow the communist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991, pushed for separation from Ethiopia and after a 1993, gained independence. The two countries have been rivals ever since.

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Armed groups continue to carry on proxy conflicts. It is this insecurity that prompted the US government to ban its employees from travelling to within 30 miles of the border, which the State Department describes as a "militarized zone where the possibility of armed conflict between Ethiopian and Eritrean forces continues to exist."

While armed guards are compulsory in the Danakil region where bandits are known to operate, procedures can be lax. If a Land Cruiser lacks space for a guard, as long as payment is made at the pick-up point, the group can continue, visitors say.

The slackness of the European tourists is surprising given the history of the area and its proximity to the tense border. In 2007, a group including British Embassy staff from Addis Ababa was taken hostage and then released via the Eritrean capital, Asmara. As now, Eritrea's government denied any involvement in the attack.

Resume hostilities?

Ethiopia's threat to the international community that it may be forced to resume hostilities with its neighbor comes after an unsuccessful December attempt at the United Nations to have stringent economic sanctions applied to Eritrea. Last year, the UN accused Eritrea of being behind a plot to bomb a January 2010 African Union summit in Addis Ababa, and the war of words has intensified since.

There has been an arms embargo and an asset freeze and travel ban on Eritrean officials since 2009 for supporting rebels in Somalia and other acts of regional destabilization.   

Ethiopia would like to see this expanded to a crippling ban on foreign companies operating in its burgeoning mining sector and a ban on Eritrea's tax on remittances.

Presumably, it believes that economic strangulation will force a change in behavior from Asmara, or the downfall of Isayas Afeworki's government.

The border is still heavily militarized in parts 12 years after a two-year conflict over disputed territory erupted. A return to war seems a possibility.

"The Government would like to reiterate that the international community has never been the last line of defense against Eritrea's destabilizing activities," the foreign ministry said. "It should be made clear that Ethiopia has the right to defend itself and it will do so if necessary.”

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