ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — Gunmen in Ethiopia's arid north attacked a group of European tourists, killing five, wounding two and kidnapping two, an Ethiopian official said Wednesday.
Ethiopian Communications Minister Bereket Simon said the gunmen came from neighboring Eritrea and attacked the tourist group before dawn on Tuesday. Two Ethiopians were also taken hostage. Eritrea denied it was involved.
Austrian, Belgian, German, Hungarian and Italian nationals were among those in the tourist group, Bereket said.
Two Germans, two Hungarians and an Austrian were among the five killed, according to an Interpol report cited by the spokesman for Hungary's prime minister. Two Belgians were seriously hurt and two Italians escaped unharmed, the report said. Two Germans were kidnapped.
Austria's foreign ministry confirmed that an Austrian man from the province of Upper Austria was among the five dead.
Ethiopian officials could not immediately say with certainty which countries the victims were from.
Ethiopian state television reported on Tuesday that there had been eight tourists in the targeted group, but Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Peter Launsky-Tiefenthal said late Tuesday that two groups totaling as many as 22 people may have been attacked, though he said the numbers were not confirmed.
The tourists were visiting a volcanic region in Ethiopia's northern Afar region, which lies below sea level and is known for its intense heat and picturesque salt flats.
The tourists appeared to be traveling with Addis Ababa-based Green Land Tours and Travel, according to three people in Ethiopia's capital, all of whom asked not to be identified because the information hadn't yet been made public.
Green Land Tours and Travel offers a 15-day travel package to the Afar region, which include visits to watch salt extraction from salt lakes and a trek around a volcano that spouts lava pools.
Bereket said that "some groups trained and armed by the Eritrean government" attacked the tourists about 20 to 25 kilometers (12 to 15 miles) from the Eritrean border.
Eritrea's ambassador to the African Union, Girma Asmerom, said Ethiopia's allegations are an "absolute lie" and that the attack is an internal Ethiopian matter.
Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a border war from 1998 to 2000,claiming the lives of about 80,000 people. Tension between the neighboring East African countries rose last year when a U.N. report claimed that Eritrea was behind a plot to attack an African Union summit in Ethiopia.
Launsky-Tiefenthal said there was an Austrian Foreign Ministry travel warning in effect for the region since 2007 "because of several incidents involving attacks on tourist groups ... in some case politically motivated in others criminally motivated."
In 2007, five Europeans and 13 Ethiopians were kidnapped in Afar. Ethiopia accused Eritrea of masterminding that kidnapping, but Eritrea blamed an Ethiopian rebel group. All of those hostages were released, though some of the Ethiopians were held for more than a month.
In 2008, Ethiopia foiled a kidnapping attempt on a group of 28 French tourists in the area.
"The problem is, there is no infrastructure in the area, no telephone lines, satellite phones barely work," Launsky-Tiefenthal said, comparing the remote area to "the surface of Mars."
Associated Press writers George Jahn in Vienna, Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary and Anita Powell in Johannesburg contributed to this report.