* Group says could release them through negotiation
* Denies killing Western tourists (Adds Hungarian survivors’ account)
By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA/BUDAPEST, Jan 23 (Reuters) – An Ethiopian rebel group fighting for an independent homeland has said it was responsible for kidnapping two German tourists and two Ethiopians last week but blamed Ethiopian troops for killing five others.
The rebel Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF), fighting a low-key insurgency to create a homeland from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, said its four hostages were safe and in good health.
It did not say where in Afar it was holding them and gave no indication what it was demanding in return for their freedom.
“We can ensure that their peaceful release will be granted through peaceful negotiation … through the Afar elders in the region,”ARDUF said in a statement dated Jan. 21 and published on an opposition party website.
Hungarian survivors of the attack told how they were woken by gunshots in their campsite in the shadow of the Erta Ale volcano before being hauled from their tents and beaten with clubs.
“They made us line up together with two of our colleagues who slept in the other tent and fired shots at us … we tried to escape,” university researcher Zoltan Winter told a news conference in Budapest, according to a video posted on website Index.hu on Monday.
A Hungarian geologist died instantly while a doctor in the group suffered serious injuries and died later. Two others jumped into a ravine and escaped, while Winter hid in a tent.
“What we saw was heaven on earth in the afternoon, but turned into hell by morning,” said Winter’s wife, Iren Puskas.
Two Germans and an Austrian were also killed during Tuesday’s attack in the arid corner of northeast Ethiopia, one of the hottest places on earth, whose salt plains and volcanos make it a playground for geologists and adventurous tourists.
Addis Ababa, whose 1998-2000 war with Eritrea defines relations with Asmara, has accused Eritrea of staging Tuesday’s attack. It said the ambush was carried out by 30-40 men and said it believed the four hostages were being held across the border.
Eritrea dismisses the charge and ARDUF blamed Ethiopian troops for killing the tourists.
“Our forces killed 16 Ethiopian soldiers and wounded a dozen of them … when the Ethiopian forces opened fire on our patrolling unit,” it said.
Ethiopian government officials were not immediately available for comment on ARDUF’s accusation.
The region has seen kidnappings before.
In 2007, gunmen seized five Europeans and eight Ethiopians, but handed the Europeans to Eritrea less than two weeks later and the eight locals several months later. (Additional reporting by Krisztina Than in Budapest Editing by George Obulutsa and Ben Harding)