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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 May, 2003, 16:11 GMT 17:11 UK
Algeria 'negotiating tourists' freedom'
Motorcycling tourist in Algerian Sahara
The tourists were travelling without guides

Talks are under way to secure the freedom of 31 European tourists who are being held in the Sahara desert, the Algerian Government has said.

"Contacts are taking place at the moment on the liberation of the tourists," Tourism Minister Lakhdar Dorbani told the national parliament's tourism commission, Algerian state radio reports.

His statement was the first confirmation by an Algerian official that talks to secure the release of the hostages were being held.

The minister declined to specify with whom the talks were being held.

Some of the 31 tourists - 15 Germans, 10 Austrians, four Swiss nationals, a Dutchman and a Swede - have been missing since February.

Militant group

El Watan newspaper quotes Algerian security officials as saying that a gang of bandits had kidnapped the tourists in return for a ransom, and that talks on securing their release had been under way for three weeks.

The paper said the tourists had been located in the Tamelrik mountain range, about 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) south-east of Algiers.

Earlier reports speculated that the tourists had been kidnapped by the militant Islamic Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), linked to Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

Algeria has deployed thousands of soldiers in a major search for the tourists in the vast Sahara desert.

Last week, Algerian Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni said he thought the tourists were alive.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is reported to have offered special forces to Algeria to help search for the tourists.

The offer was included in a letter sent last week to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, German weekly Der Spiegel says in its Monday edition.




SEE ALSO:
'German offer' for Sahara search
04 May 03  |  Africa
Missing tourists' desert message
14 Apr 03  |  Europe
Tourists vanish in Sahara
30 Mar 03  |  Africa
Timeline: Algeria
03 Mar 03  |  Country profiles
Country profile: Algeria
03 Mar 03  |  Country profiles


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