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Last Updated: Monday, 5 March 2007, 15:42 GMT
Q&A: Ethiopia's Afar community
The area also has an active volcano (pictured here by Aaron Carson)
Afar region's volcano attracts tourists

Diplomatic efforts to free five British citizens feared kidnapped in the far north of Ethiopia have focused media attention on one of the most desolate parts of the world.

The abductions took place last Thursday in the north of the large but sparsely populated Afar Region, a desert area noted for its lawlessness.

Although the president of Afar, Ismail Ali Sero, has accused Eritrean soldiers of kidnapping the group, local rebels are known to have kidnapped tourists in the past.

Who are the Afars?

About 1.4m 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 Muslims.

What is known about the area?

The region is 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.

Although a ceasefire between the two countries 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.

Adding to the danger is the existence of a small rebel group.

Who are the rebels?

The Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF) 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.

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 southeast of the country, including the Red Sea port of Assab. One of the ARDUF's slogans is "The Red Sea belongs to the Afars!"

What are the rebels doing now?

During the 1998 Ethiopia-Eritrea border war, the ARDUF took Ethiopia's side and declared a ceasefire 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.

But in 2003, Afar militants issued a warning to foreigners not to enter the Afar region to demarcate the disputed Ethiopia-Eritrea border as they oppose the existence of any boundary that divides the Afar people.

BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad.

In pictures: Ethiopia's Afar region
03 Mar 07 |  In Pictures
Country profile: Ethiopia
02 Mar 07 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Eritrea
19 Dec 06 |  Country profiles


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