, ADDIS ABABA, Jan 19 – Ethiopian security forces were Thursday searching for gunmen who killed five European tourists and kidnapped at least two others and two guides in an attack it blamed on arch-rival Eritrea.
“We are working on how to respond to the attack… there are security operators there,” said foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti.
Two Germans, two Hungarians and an Austrian were killed in the attack, with others wounded, officials said. German newspaper Bild cited security sources as saying three of its nationals were missing.
The 22 tourists were trekking near Ethiopia’s famed Erta Ale volcano, one of Africa’s most spectacular which lies in the remote and arid Afar depression — reputedly one of the least hospitable places on the planet.
Local rebels have claimed kidnappings in the past, but the attack before dawn on Tuesday near the tense border with Eritrea was the region’s worst incident involving tourists in years.
“Eritrea has been doing this repeatedly and we are still appealing to the international community to act,” Dina said.
“We are inquiring as to the details (of the killings) but definitely they (Eritrea) are the ones who have carried out the attack,” he said.
Asmara however vehemently denied any involvement in the attack. A statement released late Wednesday from Eritrea’s foreign ministry said the allegations were “ludicrous” and a “smear campaign.”
Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia and won independence in 1993 after a 30-year struggle.
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, with Ethiopian soldiers on land ruled by international courts to belong to Eritrea.
Ethiopia “routinely seeks to blame Eritrea for military acts of home-grown internal opposition movements” the Eritrean ministry statement read.
The ministry in accused Ethiopia of trying to deflect attention from “illegal acts of occupation” of Eritrean land.
The killings and kidnappings have dealt another blow to regional tourism after kidnappings in Kenyan resorts and attacks on yachts by Somali pirates.
Some of the tourists were airlifted back to the capital Addis Ababa on Wednesday afternoon.
The Erta Ale, or “Smoking Mountain” is an active volcano near the Eritrean border. Visitors to the region need permits and security escorts due to incidents of banditry.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks on the tourists.
Ethiopia’s Afar region, also known as Danakil depression, is a desolate desert scrubland with a series of volcanoes and shallow salty lakes.
It featured as the dramatic backdrop to scenes in Hollywood’s 2010 epic fantasy Clash of the Titans.
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.