By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Five European tourists were killed, and two tourists and two Ethiopians were kidnapped, in an attack by gunmen in northern Ethiopia's remote Afar region, the Ethiopian government said on Wednesday.
Government spokesman Bereket Simon told Reuters two Germans, two Hungarians and an Austrian died in the dawn attack in an arid area prone to banditry where separatist rebels have operated.
On Wednesday afternoon, eleven tired-looking survivors still dressed in trekking clothing arrived by plane in the capital, Addis Ababa.
Several hid their faces from the awaiting television cameras. One was pushed through the airport in a wheelchair, his knees and arms heavily bruised, before the group was whisked away in diplomatic vehicles.
There was confusion over who had been wounded in the attack, and their nationalities. Addis Ababa initially said a Hungarian and an Italian were wounded, but Rome later denied one of its citizens had been hurt.
Hungarian authorities confirmed one of their nationals was wounded. Belgium's Foreign Ministry spokesman told Reuters a Belgian and a national from another country who lived in Brussels were injured and had been taken to a hospital in Mekele, northeastern Ethiopia's biggest city.
Afar is a barren corner in the Horn of Africa country, and one of the earth's harshest terrains. The highest average annual temperature ever recorded was in Afar's Danakil Depression at 94 degrees Fahrenheit (34.4 Celsius).
ERITREA SCOFFS AT BLAME GAME
Ethiopia quickly blamed its neighbor and arch-foe Eritrea for the attack, saying it had trained and armed the gunmen responsible. Ethiopia also blamed an Afar rebel movement for kidnapping five Westerners in the region in 2007.
Eritrea's envoy to the African Union, Girma Asmerom, was swift to reject the Ethiopian accusation, telling Reuters: "This is pathetic, an absolute lie."
The Afar province's rock-strewn hills give way to vast deserts below sea level, and dry river-beds and acacia thorn-trees dot the landscape. Banditry is widespread in a region once described by the late British explorer Wilfred Thesiger as a "veritable land of death."
Foreigners who venture out into the area usually include researchers, aid workers and some 500 adventure tourists each year visiting geographical wonders like the Danakil Depression, with ancient salt mines and volcanoes.
"The attack occurred at 5 a.m. on Tuesday, in which Eritrean-trained groups also kidnapped four. Two of them are foreigners, one is a driver and the other a policeman," Bereket said.
Ethiopian state television said the victims were part of a 27-member party that also included U.S., Australian and Belgian nationals.
"The group may have consisted of two groups of travelers consisting of nationals from a series of European countries, most likely including Austria," Austria's Foreign Ministry spokesman Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal told Reuters.
A German Foreign Ministry spokesman said Berlin was working with its embassy in Addis Ababa to clarify what had happened.
A German media report said the group of tourists had been close to the Erta Ale volcano, one of Ethiopia's most active.
Ethiopia said the four hostages might have been taken across the frontier into Eritrea.
"On previous occasions, when tourists have been kidnapped, the Eritrean government had tried to use the prisoners as a bargaining chip in its diplomatic activities," Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement
In 2007, gunmen seized five Europeans and eight locals in Afar. The Europeans were handed to the Eritrean authorities less than two weeks later and Britain said Asmara had helped secure their release. The eight locals were freed a few weeks later.
Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a 1998-2000 border war that killed some 70,000 people, and the dispute still festers.
Addis Ababa routinely accuses Asmara of supporting Ethiopian separatist groups, while Eritrea says the accusations are lies designed to tarnish its reputation.
"It has become a trend for Ethiopia to fabricate sensational news against Eritrea whenever the summit is nearing," Girma told Reuters, referring to an African Union summit which begins in Addis Ababa next week.
Ethiopia accused Eritrea of plotting to bomb targets and disrupt an AU meeting in January last year.
(Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna, Krisztina Than in Budapest and Ben Deighton in Brussels; Writing by David Clarke and Richard Lough)