On January 17, a group of European tourists, accompanied by an Ethiopian police officer and driver, were attacked while travelling through the Afar region of northern Ethiopia. Five people were killed, two confirmed injured and four others taken hostage in an attack that has reignited tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The region, near the border between the two countries, attracts tourists wanting to see the Erta Ale volcano. This is not the first kidnapping in recent years. In 2007, a group were kidnapped and subsequently released, and in 2004, a French tourist disappeared from the region. The rebel group the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF) have claimed responsibility for the most recent kidnapping but allege the casualties occurred when the rebel unit containing the hostages were fired upon by Ethiopian troops. As with previous attacks in the region, this latest event is thought to have been carried out by militants trained and funded by the Eritrean government, although the Eritrean government deny any such involvement.
Multiple rebel groups exist within the Afar region, with ARDUF at the forefront. Initiated in 1993, ARDUF formed as an amalgamation of three existing rebel factions in the region. The rebels are seeking a homeland for the Afar people, of which there are 1.4 million in the Horn of Africa. Whether such a homeland would exist as an autonomous region within Ethiopia or as a fully sovereign state is under debate.
In addition to its own bid for greater independence, Ethiopia has often claimed that ARDUF is attempting to destabilise the region on behalf of the Eritrean government. Since Eritrea gained independence in 1993, issues over border demarcations have simmered. In 1998, conflict escalated and a costly war was fought between the two countries.
Since the conclusion of the war in 2000, however, and despite there being a cease-fire in place, a solution to the border dispute is yet to be achieved and consequently the region remains fragile.
The most recent incident in Afar has seen diplomatic relations between the two countries severely strained. At the request of Eritrea, the United Nations has become involved in investigating the incident. In a letter to the UN Security Council, Osman Saleh, Eritrea’s Foreign Affairs Minister stated that: "Eritrea wishes to underline that the cynical posturing of the Addis Ababa regime [of claiming] that it has every right to invoke article 51 of the UN Charter 'in self-defence' and launch another war of aggression against Eritrea is not only legally hollow but carries the potential seeds of grave regional destabilisation and conflagration".
In response to the letter, Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement explaining "this is a new twist to Eritrea's efforts to deny responsibility for its continued efforts to destabilise Ethiopia and for the killing of the five tourists". The Ministry of Foreign Affairs then hinted at a possible military response to the brewing situation, asserting "the Ethiopian Government's tolerance towards a regime that openly supports terrorist activity is inevitably wearing thinner by the day. Ethiopia cannot and should not sit idly by while the regime in Asmara continues to sponsor acts of terror within Ethiopia's territory with impunity".
Eritrean opposition party, the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization (RSADO), has only added to tensions by claiming that the Eritrean government both funds and trains the rebels as the “chief operators of this terrorist attack are Eritrea’s intelligence Chief Wedi- Ferow (in charge in Assab, Dankalia) and Colonel Debesay”
The war between Ethiopia and Eritrea that began in 1998 led to tens of thousands of casualties and long-term displacement for citizens of both countries. Conflict also spilt over into neighbouring Somalia. With the Horn of Africa still badly hampered by the recent drought, and with Somalia experiencing ongoing instability, the region would be badly affected by a cross-border conflict, with susceptibility to food shortages increasing dramatically.
As the situation stands, tensions are mounting between the two countries as Ethiopia sends elders to the region in an attempt to negotiate for the release of the four hostages. ARDUF stated, "we can ensure that their peaceful release will be granted through peaceful negotiation through the Afar elders in the region”. But even if a safe release can be secured, another bump in the road for the tumultuous Ethiopia-Eritrea relationship will have many in the region worried.
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