Hunt for tourists moves to Eritrea

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IT IS one of the most remote regions of the world with temperatures soaring to 50C (122F) and active volcanos spewing poisonous gases.

This weekend the disputed border between Ethiopia and Eritrea was the focus of an international rescue mission after a group of wealthy foreign tourists, including some Britons, were kidnapped near the barren Danakil Depression - one of the lowest places on Earth.

Ethiopia's location in the troubled Horn of Africa has brought it a succession of disasters - both natural and geopolitical - in recent years.

Since coming through a brutal civil war and a series of devastating famines in the 1970s and 1980s, the country has been plagued by violent tensions within and outwith its borders.

Relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea have been strained since Eritrea formally gained its independence from Addis Ababa in 1993 following a 30-year guerrilla war.

The border between the countries was never officially demarcated, leading to a two-and-a-half-year war which ended in 2000.

A UN peace-keeping force monitors the tense, 620-mile buffer zone between the two countries.

In early January this year, Ethiopia backed Somalia's transitional government in ousting Islamic forces from the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

Ethiopia - the largest country in the Horn of Africa - has also seen the suppression of political opposition and been wracked by internal ethnic tensions.

On Friday, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) updated its advice to travellers, recommending against travel to the Afar and Danakil regions in the north-east of the country, next to the border with Eritrea.

About 8,000 British tourists visit Ethiopia each year, according to the FCO, which also warns holidaymakers not to go to Gambella region, sections of the border with Eritrea, and not to cross the Ethiopia-Somalia border by road at any time.

Last night it was still not clear who had kidnapped the westerners, including several Britons, but is not the first time travellers have been abducted in the region.

In 1995, rebels from the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (Arduf) admitted abducting Italian tourists in the area. The Arduf has been fighting for years against Ethiopia and Eritrea over lands inhabited by ethnic Afar.

The somewhat hard-to-follow advice for the hostages from a veteran explorer who has twice been kidnapped in the desolate region is to "keep calm and not excite any of them".

Colonel John Nicholas Blashford-Snell, 70, has twice been kidnapped in the region.

He said bandits were a common hazard, driven to robbery by desperate poverty rather than political reasons.

The retired British Army colonel said they were driven to robbery by desperate poverty, rather than by any political reasons.

Asked how hostages should act, Blashford-Snell said: "Do not get them [the kidnappers] excited in any way because they are totally unpredictable. Kidnap victims should just take things very slowly and calmly.

"I think you have just got to keep calm and smile at them and let events take their course."

Blashford-Snell said Dalol was one of the remotest places on earth, characterised by sulphurous springs and dangerously high temperatures. He first visited the region in 1968 at the invitation of the then emperor Haile Selassie. The colonel led a team of soldiers to explore the Blue Nile in 1968 at the invitation of Haile Selassie.

He has since led 10 expeditions in Ethiopia, including one involving the navigation of 2,700 miles of the Zaire River.

He described Ethiopia as an "armed camp", but said the country's police were very effective at dealing with bandits.

The explorer said he first escaped kidnappers, who wanted to protest against income tax, in 1968 by slipping away when they were distracted.

He was kidnapped a second time, with 24 others, two years ago near the Beshitta River by six robbers armed with AK-47s.

Blashford-Snell said: "We just sat very calmly and luckily we had a secret weapon, a satellite telephone, and spoke to the Ethiopian ministry of defence.

"They sent in police overnight and rushed in at first light. They dealt with the bandits in a summary manner.

"The first policeman went up to the lead bandit and hit him and the bandit went down. They used rifle butts but did not fire any shots.

"They sent us a message to lay down on the ground and keep absolutely silent as they would attack the camp at 6am.

"Some of their police have been fighting, one way or another, for many years and we were very impressed by the way they behaved."

Blashford-Snell said he believed the bandits, known as Shifta, wanted money, and did not plan to harm them or hold them to ransom.

Shifta live in the lawless, mountainous regions of Ethiopia. They are known to rob people travelling between villages, and steal cattle.

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