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14 Tourists Kidnapped in Algeria Head Home

The Europeans are the last of 32 who had been held since February by Islamic militants. Their release was negotiated by Mali's government.

August 19, 2003|From Associated Press

BAMAKO, Mali — Islamic extremists freed 14 European tourists Monday, six months after they were kidnapped by an Islamic militant group in the Sahara Desert.

The negotiated release ended an ordeal that began in southern Algeria, where the militants snatched a total of 32 tourists making desert safaris without guides. After some of the tourists were freed in a raid, the militants fled with their remaining captives into neighboring Mali.

The 14 -- nine Germans, four Swiss and a Dutchman -- were turned over to government officials late Monday, said Seydou Sissouma, spokesman for Mali's president, Amadou Toumani Toure, whose government had been negotiating for the releases.

"Today is a great day for us, a great day for Germany," German Deputy Foreign Minister Juergen Chrobog, who was in Mali to aid in the negotiations, told ZDF television. He credited the "great diplomatic skill of the Malian president" for securing their freedom but declined to give details.

The freed hostages were to spend the night in the desert city of Gao before flying today to Mali's capital, Bamako, and then to Germany.

Authorities have said nothing publicly about ransom or any other demands of the kidnappers. Asked about media reports that a ransom was paid, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told reporters that it was German policy not to make such payments. He refused to elaborate.

Mali offered no word on the hostages' conditions. German media reports said they were exhausted but healthy considering the circumstances.

Algerian authorities say the kidnappers are linked to the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, generally seen as the less bloody of two main Islamic extremist movements behind an insurgency in Algeria that is more than a decade old.

The Salafist group is suspected of having links to Al Qaeda.

The kidnappings took place in mid-February, when the 32 Europeans were trekking in seven groups, camping and riding motorcycles and four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Algerian security forces freed 17 of the hostages in a raid on a desert hide-out in May. One hostage, a German woman, died of heatstroke and was buried by her abductors in June.

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