Q&A: Ethiopia's Afar region
The killing of five foreign tourists in north-west Ethiopia has again drawn
international attention to one of the most remote and lawless parts of the
Four other people were kidnapped in the incident in the mostly desert Afar
region, where there have been periodic attacks on foreigners blamed on rebel
In 2004, a French tourist disappeared in the region, reportedly leaving "no
trace but her rucksack", and in 2007, a group of European nationals were
kidnapped in Afar, but later released by the separatist rebel group that
As in previous cases, Ethiopian officials have blamed the most recent attack
attack on militant groups funded and trained by the Eritrean government,
which denies any involvement.
Who are the Afars?
About 1.4 million Afars live in Ethiopia with smaller, but still very
significant, Afar communities living as minorities in the neighbouring
countries of Eritrea and Djibouti.
Most Afars are nomadic herders. Some also trade in the salt that can be
mined from the Danakil Depression, a very hot and barren area lying below
sea level and straddling the Eritrea-Ethiopia border.
The Afars have their own language, Afar. Almost all of them are Sunni
What is known about the area?
Famed as the hottest place on Earth, the geological depression of salt lakes
in Afar is home to the active Erta Ale volcano - an attraction to adventure
The region is also known for frequent non-political banditry and therefore
the Ethiopian government requires tourists visiting the area to be
accompanied by a police escort.
Further danger arises from the area's proximity to the border between
Ethiopia and Eritrea who fought a fierce two-year war in 1998. In February
2008, "elements backed by the Eritrean government" infiltrated the area and
attempted to kidnap 28 tourists, mostly of French nationality, Ethiopian
television ETV reported.
Although a cease-fire between Ethiopia and Eritrea is in place, it remains
fragile and a permanent settlement to the border dispute continues to be
elusive. Both sides maintain a hostile media campaign against each other.
Which rebel groups operate in the area?
A number of rebel groups however operate in Afar. The most prominent of
these are the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF), which has
been active for more than a decade.
It was founded in 1993, bringing together three existing Afar organisations.
It kidnapped some Italian tourists in 1995, later releasing them unharmed.
An earlier rebel group, the Afar Liberation Front (ALF), fought against the
then-communist government of Ethiopia between 1975 and 1991. The ALF later
continued to lobby for Afar interests but not through military means.
Another, separate, Afar insurgency was mounted in 1991 to 1994 in
neighbouring Djibouti by the Front for the Restoration of Unity and
Democracy (FRUD). A splinter faction continued to fight until 2000.
Also operating in the region is the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organisation, an
Eritrean rebel group.
What are the rebels' aims?
The ARDUF seeks the creation of an independent Afar homeland, which would
include areas of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti.
There is disagreement on whether this would be an internationally recognised
sovereign state or an autonomous region within Ethiopia. The group has
always been very firm, however, in opposing the existence of the separate
state of Eritrea, as the creation of that country split the Afar homeland.
In Eritrea, Afars dominate the south-east of the country, including the Red
Sea port of Assab. One of the ARDUF's slogans is "The Red Sea belongs to the
What are the rebels doing now?
During the 1998 Ethiopia-Eritrea border war, the ARDUF took Ethiopia's side
and declared a cease-fire in operations against Ethiopian forces.
In 2002, one faction of the ARDUF went even further in its reconciliation
with Addis Ababa and declared that it would permanently abandon armed
struggle in favour of peaceful involvement in Ethiopian politics.
But a rival faction denounced this move, declaring that ARDUF leader
Mohamooda Ahmed Gaas had been expelled for treasonable activities and vowed
to continue the secessionist campaign by military means.
However, the intensity of the ARDUF's military operations in recent years
does appear to have been weakened by these internal disagreements. At most,
it has been conducting a rather low-level insurgency.
In March 2011, the armed ARDUF faction claimed to have killed 49 government
soldiers in the area.
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Erta Ale volcano in the Afar region of EthiopiaThe Erta Ale volcano attracts
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Received on Fri Jan 20 2012 - 07:40:22 EST