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.

Zoltan Gergely Kelemen/MTI/AP
Candles lit by mourners burn to pay tribute to research doctor of the University of Szeged Gabor Szabad next to his portrait in the building of the dermatological clinic of the University of Szeged, in Szeged, Hungary, Thursday. Szabad was one of the two Hungarians along with two Germans and one Austrian citizens who were killed at Erta Ale volcano in the remote Afar Province in North Eastern Ethiopia by gunmen infiltrated from neighboring Eritrea early Tuesday.

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. 

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. 

Political faultline

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."

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.

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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