, NAIROBI, Kenya Jan 19 – Eritrea denied on Thursday it was involved in Wednesday’s armed attack on five European tourists who were killed at the Erta Ale volcano in Ethiopia.
“These are indelible facts,” Eritrea said in a statement from its Foreign Ministry which blamed Ethiopia’s ruling Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for spreading propaganda.
The Europeans were trekking near the famed volcano when they were attacked and killed. Two others were kidnapped in an attack said to be the worst on tourists there in years.
The volcano where the attack occurred is one of Africa’s most spectacular and lies in the Afar depression – reputedly one of the least hospitable places on the planet – where local rebels have claimed attacks and kidnappings in the past.
Ethiopia blamed Eritrea for the attack.
Eritrea said the accusations were part of a wider plot spanning more than 20 years of a smear campaign waged against it. In the third quarter of last year, Kenya and Ethiopia blamed Eritrea of dropping planeloads of weapons to the Al Shabaab in Somalia to enable them fight forces battling them.
“This is not surprising as the TPLF regime routinely seeks to blame Eritrea for military acts of home-grown internal opposition movements spawned by its misguided policies,” Eritrea said.
A UN report released earlier in the week however dismissed the claims, saying there is no evidence to show Eritrea was supplying arms to the Al Shabaab.
“The TPLF regime has further transformed Ethiopia into a platform of regional destabilisation to serve the interests of external forces,” Asmara adds in a statement that is largely critical of archenemy Ethiopia.
The incident is likely to deal another blow to regional tourism after kidnappings in Kenyan resorts and attacks on yachts by Somali pirates.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s spokesman Peter Szijjarto disclosed the nationalities of the tourists involved in Ethiopian attacks, citing information he said was obtained from Interpol.
“Two Hungarians were killed in Ethiopia and another lightly wounded… In total, five people were killed: two Germans, two Hungarians and an Austrian,” he said.
“Two Italians were able to escape, two Belgians were lightly wounded. Two Germans and two Ethiopians were abducted,” he added.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle confirmed the killings of two nationals and added: “I sadly also have to inform you that the fate of other Germans who were part of this group is not clear.”
German newspaper Bild cited security sources saying three nationals were missing.
Belgium said one of its nationals was wounded, as was a British friend she was travelling with.
Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said 22 tourists were on the trip to the remote destination.
“There is concern that the people who have been kidnapped might have been taken across the border into Eritrea,” it said in a statement.
Some of the tourists were flown back to the capital Addis Ababa on Wednesday, including a man in a wheelchair. Some hid their faces with scarves and rucksacks, an AFP correspondent said.
Several diplomats were at the airport to meet the tourists who were driven away in waiting vehicles Wednesday.
The Afar region, an arid northern region with shallow salty lakes and chains of volcanoes, is one of the hottest places on Earth. It is also known for hominid fossil finds.
Erta Ale, or “Smoking Mountain”, is an active volcano which has a width of some 50 kilometres (35 miles).
It sits in the Afar depression, also known as the Danakil depression, an area which lies below sea level and features as the dramatic backdrop to scenes in Hollywood’s 2010 epic fantasy Clash of the Titans.
Access to the region is limited and foreigners need official approval to get there but it attracts a steady stream of volcano buffs and adventure backpackers who often plan group trips on Internet forums to share the high travel costs.
A French tourist disappeared in the region in 2004 leaving behind no trace apart from a rucksack.
In 2007, five European nationals, including British embassy staff, were captured by the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front rebels (ARDUF), who freed them after 12 days.
In Nairobi, Ethiopia’s ambassador to Kenya, Shabsudin Ahmed Roble, said the attack was a provocation by Eritrea.
“The latest move by Eritrea is an act of provocation and Ethiopia will not allow Asmara to continue its terrorist attacks,” Shabsudin told AFP.
The two Horn of Africa neighbours fought a devastating 1998-2000 border war which claimed at least 70,000 lives and their dispute remains unresolved.
Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia and won independence in 1993 after a 30-year struggle.