January 17, 2012 / 7:33 PM / in 6 years

UPDATE 2-Ethiopia says Eritrea-trained gunmen killed tourists

* Addis Ababa says gunmen trained, armed by foe Eritrea

* German nationals among those killed - diplomat says

* Afar known as a haunt for rebels, bandits (Adds Ethiopian government spokesman, details, background)

By Aaron Maasho

ADDIS ABABA, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Gunmen have killed five foreign tourists in Ethiopia’s remote northern Afar region, after crossing into the Horn of Africa country from neighbouring Eritrea which trained and armed the attackers, an Ethiopian official said on Tuesday.

A Western diplomat told Reuters German nationals were among those killed in the shooting which happened late on Monday. He did not confirm the total number of dead.

Afar is known to be a haunt of Ethiopian rebels who regularly cross over the border with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s bitter foe, Addis Ababa says. Eritrean rebels and bandits are also in the area at times.

“The group of foreign tourists was attacked by gunmen late on Monday, by members of a group that was trained and armed by the Eritrean government. It’s the usual terrorist activity by the regime,” Bereket Simon, Ethiopia’s government spokesman, told Reuters.

There was no immediate comment from the Eritrean authorities. The Red Sea state often says Ethiopia “fabricates” lies to tarnish its image.

Ethiopian state television said two other tourists had been seriously wounded in the attack, while another tourist had escaped unharmed.

An Ethiopian Foreign Ministry official, who declined to be named, said the government believed there were nationals from “a number of countries, mostly from Europe”.

Addis Ababa routinely accuses Asmara of supporting a number of Ethiopian separatist groups, and blamed an Afar rebel movement for the kidnapping of five Europeans in the region in 2007.

A German Foreign Ministry spokesman said Berlin was working with the German embassy in Addis Ababa to clarify exactly what had happened.

The only foreigners who normally brave the inhospitable Afar are researchers, a few aid workers and adventure tourists visiting geographical wonders such as the Danakil Depression, one of the hottest places on earth with its ancient salt mines and volcanoes.

A German media report said the group of tourists had been close to the Erta Ale volcano, one of Ethiopia’s most active.

Germany’s Foreign Ministry carries a travel warning on its website alerting German nationals to banditry and other dangers in the area around the volcano.

The Europeans abducted in 2007 in the barren, searingly hot corner of Ethiopia where rock-strewn hills rise above vast deserts below sea-level were later released.

Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a 1998-2000 border war that killed some 70,000 people, and the dispute still festers. (Additional reporting by Gareth Jones in Berlin; Writing by Richard Lough)

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