Two young British women were recovering after unknown attackers in the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar threw acid into their faces, the first such assault against foreigners in the popular tourist destination, police said on Thursday.
On Wednesday evening two men on a moped threw the acid at the 18-year- old women as they strolled through the streets of Stone Town, the historical centre of the capital of the semi-autonomous Tanzanian archipelago, splashing their faces and chests.
“Police in Zanzibar have launched a manhunt, and we ask for public assistance in identifying the attackers,” deputy police commissioner Mkadam Khamis said.
The women were flown to Tanzania’s economic capital Dar es Salaam for treatment, where their wounds were said to be “not life threatening”, according to Saleh Mohammed Jidawi, a health ministry official.
Hospital workers have said the liquid thrown at the two 18-year-olds, identified as Katie Gee and Kirstie Trup, may have been diluted acid.
Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete visited the two young women at the Aga Khan hospital, where he called the attack “shameful” and said it “tarnished the image” of Tanzania.
He ordered the security forces to step up their investigation and find the culprits.
The two women, who had just finished their school-leaving exams, were spending three weeks doing volunteer teaching in a local school, a placement organised through i-to-i Travel, a Kent, Britain-based company that organises Gap year volunteer work.
The attack came at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and as people began to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr holiday.
“The motive ... has not been established. Investigations are on until we apprehend the criminals,” Khamis said.
Britain’s Foreign Office said they were “providing consular assistance” to the women, but gave no further details.
Tourism is the main foreign currency earner for Zanzibar, famed for its white-sand beaches and historical buildings in Stone Town, listed as a world heritage site by Unesco.
“It may threaten tourists,” said Abdul Samad, chairman of the Zanzibar Association for Tourism Investors.
Tensions between the majority Muslim population and Christians in the archipelago -- some three per cent of the 1.2 million people on the islands – have been on the increase in recent years, as well as on mainland Tanzania.
In Tanzania, where Muslims and Christians each make up around a third of the population, the communities traditionally live peacefully side-by-side.
In Zanzibar, some more conservative elements of the Muslim community object to foreign tourists who wear revealing clothes, as well as bars selling alcohol.
There have been a series of attacks in the archipelago, including an acid attack on a Muslim cleric in November, and the shooting death of a Catholic priest in February.
In December another priest was shot and wounded.
Two years ago, youths hurled petrol bombs into at least three bars in Zanzibar in protest at the sale of alcohol.
On mainland Tanzania, a bomb blast at a church mass in the northern town of Arusha in May – described as an “act of terrorism” by Kikwete – killed three people and wounded more than 60.
No group has claimed responsibility for any of the attacks.
In March last year followers of a controversial Muslim cleric Sheikh Ponda Issa Ponda were jailed for an October riot in Dar es Salaam, sparked by rumours that a 12-year-old boy at a Christian school had urinated on a copy of the Koran.