News has emerged this week of a group of tourists being attacked on the crater rim of the Erte Ale volcano, in the Danakil Depression in Northern Ethiopia at about 1.00 am local time on Tuesday 17 Januar 2012. The reported to have resulted in the death of five tourists, two Germans, two Austrians and a Hungarian. A further two German tourists and two Ethiopians have apparently been abducted, while seven more members of the party, are being treated at a hospital in Semera; one local policeman and six tourists from Germany, Hungary and Italy. The group were traveling with the tour company Volcano Discovery, who are trying to find out more about the incident.
A permanent lava-lake in the crater of Erte Ale makes the volcano popular with tourists, despite it's remote location.
The deserts of Northern Ethiopia and Southern Eritrea are extremely volcanically active, with dozens of volcanoes fed by an emerging divergent margin along the East African Rift; Africa is literally splitting in two along the Great Rift Valley. To the north Arabia has already split away from Africa, forming the Red Sea, and the Danakil Depression is likely to unzip in a similar fashion in the next few million years.
The area is also extremely poor, and politically unstable. Eritrea was a part of Ethiopia until 1993, and fought a long and bloody war for its independence. Since Eritrean independence the two countries have not got on well, and have come into conflict on a number of occasions. An attempt by the United Nations to patrol the border was abandoned some years ago. The border region is home to Eritrean backed rebels against the Ethiopian Government, Ethiopian backed rebels against the Eritrean Government and bandits of little political inclination. The Ethiopian Government has blamed Eritrean backed rebels for the incident, but it is unclear if this claim is backed by any evidence; the Eritrean Government denies this and accuses the Ethiopians of 'fabricating lies' to tarnish Eritrea's reputation.
Western tourists are an attractive target to bandits in impoverished areas such as the Danakil, since they are wealthy by local standards, and are seldom well armed. This makes them easy to rob, and in extreme cases, worth holding for ransom. In addition, where tourists make an important contribution to the local economy the tourist industry, then rebel groups may choose to attack tourists to damage the economy. East and North Africa have seen a number of attacks on tourists in recent decades, at least some of which have clearly been intended specifically to harm the tourist industry.
A number off attacks on tourists in Kenya, close to the Somali border, have been blamed on Islamic militants linked to the al-Shabab religious faction in Somalia. This has provoked a strong reaction from Kenya, including several military incursions into Somalia. Kenya has also accused Eritrea of backing the militants, a charge which Eritrea denies.
Somali pirates have also targeted pleasure cruisers and private yachts on the Indian Ocean, as well as container ships and oil tankers, though this is probably more motivated by the potential for financial gain than political considerations.
In 1999 Rwandan Rebels attacked and killed a number of western tourists in Bwindi National Park in Uganda, in a direct move to harm the Ugandan tourist industry. The Ugandan Government is a close ally of the Rwandan Government of Paul Kagame, who came to power in a bloody conflict following the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.
Egypt has also seen a string of attacks on Western tourists by suspected Islamic militants, throughout the 90s and 00s. It is unclear what the future will bring, as a number of formerly banned religious groups in Egypt seem keen to take part in the democratic process following the popular uprisings of 2011, and may therefore be less enthusiastic to harm the economy.
See also Eruption in the Zubair Archipelago, Eruptions on Mount Nyamuragira in the Virungu National Park, Eruptions on Mount Ebro and Volcanoes on Sciency Thoughts YouTube.