A group of 27 tourists travelling in the Afar Regional State were attacked by gunmen
last Tuesday at around three in the morning. Five European tourists were killed, four injured and two tourists and two Ethiopians were kidnapped.
The region, near the border with Eritrea, is one of the most interesting parts of Ethiopia – and one of the most dangerous. Before the attack, Germany’s Foreign Ministry had warned tourists to avoid the area. However two Germans were victims of the killings. Two Hungarians and an Austrian were killed, while an Italian and a Hungarian and two other Ethiopians were injured.
On Wednesday afternoon, 11 tired-looking survivors still dressed in trekking outfits arrived at Bole International Airport.
Several hid their faces from the awaiting cameras. One was pushed through the airport in a wheelchair, his knees and arms heavily bruised, before the group was taken away in a convoy of diplomatic vehicles.
In 2007, gunmen seized five Europeans and eight Ethiopians in Afar. The Europeans were handed to the Eritrean authorities. The eight Ethiopians were freed a few weeks later. In 2008, Ethiopian security forces prevented a planned attack on a group of tourists at the last moment. In 2009, two Ethiopians were killed and a foreigner seriously wounded when a mine exploded near the region.
The Ethiopian government blamed the Eritrean government for supporting the gunmen financially and technically. The Eritrean government on its part said that all these allegations were baseless.
Observers say that this incident might ignite and be a turning point between the two countries.
An eyewitness account
It was around 3:00 am on Tuesday January 17 and everybody was sleeping outside in the deserts of Erta’ale in Afar Regional State some 25 kilometers away from the border with Eritrea, when gunmen appeared from nowhere and killed five tourists who visited the Erta’ale volcanoes during the day on Monday. The gunmen also managed to abduct one driver who works for Greenland Tours and Travel and a policeman who is a member of the Afar Regional Police Commission and two tourists of Austrian origin. Four tourists were also critically injured and are being treated currently.
One of the tour guides who was one of the lucky ones who managed to escape unhurt told Capital that the gunmen killed the tourists while they were sleeping and dragged the others to take them captive.
“As the weather is so hot we all slept in the open outside. When we heard gun shots we ran for cover. I personally was very confused. I am lucky to be alive,” the tour guide who asked not to be named said. “The attackers might have come from Eritrea, they are Shabias,” he added referring to the Eritrean Army.
“I don’t want to be asked anymore as I am still recovering from the shocking incident.”
After the attack the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a strong statement that it will no more tolerate acts of terrorism and the regime in Asmara.
“The Ethiopian Government’s tolerance towards a regime that openly supports terrorist activity is inevitably wearing thinner by the day. The Government cannot and should not sit by idly while the regime in Asmara continues to sponsor acts of terror within Ethiopia’s territory with impunity. 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,” read the statement.
“The Ethiopian Government believes that it is still not too late for international action. At the same time, the Government would like to reiterate that the international community has never been the last line of defense against Eritrea’s destabilizing activities. It should be made clear that Ethiopia has the right to defend itself and it will do so if necessary,” the statement added.
The Ethiopian Defense Forces apparently took control of the area and are looking for the alleged kidnapers. However the government suspects that the kidnappers have already crossed the border to Eritrea.
“The Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia would like to express its deep condolences to the families of those killed in this cruel attack. The Government will do everything possible to have those taken prisoner released as soon as possible,” the statement from the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
Eritrean officials were swift in ridiculing the accusations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the State of Eritrea said in a statement:
“This is not surprising as the regime in Addis Ababa routinely seeks to blame Eritrea for military acts of home-grown internal opposition movements spawned by its misguided policies. The prevalence of armed opposition movements in Ethiopia is not, otherwise, a new or recent phenomenon predating, as it does, Eritrea’s independence. But the pattern has been exacerbated in the last twenty years. The regime has further transformed Ethiopia into a platform of regional destabilization to serve the interests of external forces. Within this mindset, it has been employing any pretext to conduct a smear campaign against Eritrea.”
The ministry also said “they [Ethiopia] have seized on this tragic event as a blessing in disguise to vilify Eritrea.”
Security to be tightened
Many observers expect that the Ethiopian government will now tighten its security measures, as Addis Ababa is to host the annual African Union Summit where heads of states and governments will meet starting next week.
Ethiopian government said it foiled an attempt by the Eritrean-backed Oromo Liberation Front rebel group to bomb the AU summit in Addis Ababa in January 2011, which was substantiated from investigation by the United Nations.
The latest attack also deals a major blow to Ethiopia’s attempts to market itself as a prime destination for adventure and cultural tourism.
“The Government of Ethiopia believes that this terrorist act is intended to coincide with the upcoming African Union Summit being held in Addis Ababa at the end of the month. It was almost exactly a year ago that a major bombing plot was foiled in Addis Ababa, intended to disrupt the African Union Summit.”