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Ethiopia sends elders to help release kidnapped tourists
January 19, 2012 / 3:45 PM / in 6 years

Ethiopia sends elders to help release kidnapped tourists

* Tourists attacked early Tuesday

* Addis Ababa says “Eritrea-trained” group responsible

* Eritrea denies accusation

* Region officials say working for their release

By Aaron Maasho

ADDIS ABABA, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Authorities in Ethiopia’s northern Afar region have sent elders to try to secure the release of two German tourists and two Ethiopians kidnapped by gunmen in the remote province, an official said on Thursday.

The four were part of a large group of 27 tourists attacked by gunmen at dawn Tuesday. Two other Germans, two Hungarians and an Austrian were killed in the raid.

Ethiopia has accused neighbour and arch-foe Eritrea of being behind the attack, claiming it had trained and armed the gunmen. Ethiopia also blamed an Afar rebel movement it said was backed by Eritrea for kidnapping five Westerners in the region in 2007.

Ethiopia also says the hostages may have been taken to Eritrea. Eritrea rejects Ethiopia’s accusations.

“The region is doing all it can to have them released. We have dispatched a team of elders to secure their freedom from their captors,” Ismael Ali Sero, president of the Afar Region, told state-run Ethiopian Television (ETV).

Ismael did not disclose whether the group had already made contact with the captors, or if officials had located their hideout.

Foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti told Reuters the Horn of Africa country was “doing its best” to secure their release.

A Hungarian national, a Belgian and a citizen of another country who resides in Brussels were also wounded in the attack and have been taken to a hospital in Mekele, northern Ethiopia’s largest city.

State TV showed footage of one of the victims being pulled in a gurney towards a helicopter, while another foreigner was seen lying on a stretcher receiving treatment for chest wounds. Hospital workers said the victims had responded well to treatment.

Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a 1998-2000 border war that killed 70,000 people, and the dispute still festers.

A foreign ministry official told Reuters the attack was carried out by a heavily-armed group of 30 to 40 men.

Foreigners who venture out into the area usually include researchers, aid workers and about 500 adventure tourists each year visiting geographical wonders such as the Danakil Depression, with ancient salt mines and volcanoes.

Afar is an arid stretch in Ethiopia’s northeast that is home to some of the world’s harshest landscape with high temperatures regularly exceeding 50 degrees Celsius in the summer.

In 2007, gunmen seized five Europeans and eight Ethiopians in Afar. The Europeans were handed to the Eritrean authorities less than two weeks later and Britain said Asmara had helped to secure their release. The eight locals were freed a few weeks later. (Editing by James Macharia and Peter Graff)

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