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Last Updated: Monday, 18 August, 2003, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
Sahara hostage drama 'in final phase'
Rescued hostages wave as they leave plane in Cologne, Germany
Some hostages were freed in May
Efforts to free 14 European tourists held hostage in the Sahara desert for months are in their final stage, German and Malian officials have said.

There were unconfirmed reports that a German military plane was on its way from Niger to Mali, where the nine Germans, four Swiss and one Dutchman are thought to be.

The hostages were among 32 tourists abducted by suspected Islamic extremists in southern Algeria earlier this year.

An evacuation plan is prepared for today - we hope that they will be free today
Gaoussou Drabo
Malian information minister
The 14 remaining captives are believed to have been taken across the border into Mali, where attempts to secure their release were continuing on Monday.

"We are in the final phase of efforts to resolve the hostage drama," German Government spokesman Bela Anda told reporters.

"We will inform you as soon as we know that the hostages are in German hands. For obvious reasons, we cannot say more now."

Sahara desert
The abductees were travelling in the Algerian Sahara without guides
Officials in Mali also stressed that talks with the hostage-takers were at a key stage.

"An evacuation plan is prepared for today," Information Minister Gaoussou Drabo told Reuters news agency in the capital, Bamako.

"We hope that they will be free today."

Correspondents say the governments have imposed a virtual news blackout in the fear that any news might derail negotiations.

Germany's ZDF television said a Malian negotiator had given a ransom to the hostage-takers. It said the money did not come from the German Government.

Speculation

Reports in the German media on Sunday said the 14 had been freed.

The reports followed days of speculation about a release. German Deputy Foreign Minister, Juergen Chrobog is in Mali.

On Friday, Mr Chrobog said he was confident of achieving their release.

The minister had flown into Bamako, on a medically equipped aircraft and has said all measures are in place for an evacuation.

The Malian Government has been conducting talks with the kidnappers through a mediator - local Tuareg leader Iyag Ag Ghali.

It was thought the hostages were seized by an Algerian organisation known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which is fighting for an Islamic state.

Seventeen were freed when Algerian soldiers reportedly raided the kidnappers' camp in May.

One German woman is believed to have died during the kidnap ordeal. Her former husband says he has been told that she died of heatstroke.


SEE ALSO:
Hostage negotiator reports back
06 Aug 03  |  Africa
Mali joins hostages search
01 Aug 03  |  Africa
Tourist hostage 'dies in Sahara'
29 Jul 03  |  Europe
Missing tourists sought in Mali
23 Jul 03  |  Africa
Missing Sahara tourists 'alive'
17 Jun 03  |  Africa


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