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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 May, 2003, 15:06 GMT 16:06 UK
Missing Sahara tourists rescued

A number of Europeans tourists presumed to have been kidnapped in the Sahara desert of southern Algeria have been found more than two months after going missing.

The 10 Austrians, six Germans and a Swede are said to be in good health and preparing to return home.

A poster showing the missing tourists
Thirty-two tourists disappeared

However their respective governments are declining to give details of how they reached safety because of concern for a further 15 tourists who are still missing.

"We expect everything will be done so that the lives of the European hostages still detained in the Algerian Sahara will not be endangered," a German Government spokesman told reporters.

The Algerian army said on Wednesday it had rescued the group of 17 who, it said, had been kidnapped by an Islamic group allegedly linked to Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

It said the foreigners had been freed unharmed after an assault by government forces on a hideout of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) on Tuesday.

However it said all the necessary precautions had been taken to avoid putting the lives of the remaining captives at risk.

Sahara tourists
Found 13 May 2003: 10 Austrians, 6 Germans, one Swede
Still missing: 10 Germans, 4 Swiss, 1 Dutch

The 32 adventure tourists were travelling without guides in a number of groups using four-wheel drive vehicles and motorbikes when they disappeared between mid-February and mid-March.

Announcing the release of six Germans, Interior Minister Otto Schily said he could not give more details.

'Dawn raid'

Speaking on German television he described the situation as "precarious". But he said there was hope that the 10 Germans would soon be free.

These developments come a day after the German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, spoke of hostage-takers for the first time.

Mr Fischer visited Algeria on Monday, where he held talks with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

SALAFIST GROUP FOR PREACHING AND COMBAT
Wants Islamic state in Algeria
One of most hardline groups fighting government
On US list of "terrorist groups"
Grew out of Armed Islamic Group (GIA) around 1998

He told reporters that he had urged Algerian officials "not to use force to try to free the hostages".

Asked who might be behind the kidnappings, he said: "I can't and don't want to answer this question, in the interest of the family and friends of the missing people."

But Salzburg governor Franz Schausberger told Austrian press and radio that he had information that the hostages were freed in a raid by an Algerian task force.

"In my view, this positive end is basically the result of the relatives' capability for endurance, but also of the excellent cooperation between the Austrian and the Algerian authorities," he told Radio Salzburg.

The Algerian daily newspaper El Watan claims that nine kidnappers were killed in the dawn raid near the Sahara desert town of Tamanrasset, 1,900 kilometres (1,200 miles) south of Algiers.

In the past few weeks there had been growing European pressure for the Algerian authorities to resolve the mystery surrounding the tourists' fate.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Ray Furlong
"What exactly happened to them is unknown"



SEE ALSO:
German plea over Sahara tourists
12 May 03  |  Africa
Missing tourists' desert message
14 Apr 03  |  Europe
Tourists vanish in Sahara
30 Mar 03  |  Africa
Country profile: Algeria
06 May 03  |  Country profiles


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