The Christian Science Monitor - CSMonitor.com
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.
By William Davison and Mike Pflanz, Correspondents
posted January 19, 2012 at 3:37 pm EST
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
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
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
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."
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
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.
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
"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."