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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 August, 2003, 00:55 GMT 01:55 UK
Freed hostages head for Germany

Freed European hostages meet President Amadou Toumani Toure (L)
The tourists met Mali's president before leaving for Germany
Fourteen Europeans freed from a five-month hostage ordeal in the Sahara desert are on a plane heading for Germany.

The tourists - nine Germans, four Swiss and a Dutchman - left the Malian capital Bamako bound for Cologne just before 0000 GMT.

Earlier, the group had flown in from the northern oasis town of Gao, after a journey by road from the desert outpost of Tessalit, a day after being freed by suspected Islamic extremist kidnappers.

The group - thin, dirty and many of them wearing ragged desert robes and turbans - attended a welcoming ceremony at Bamako's presidential palace before leaving Mali, the Associated Press reported.

The tourists are reported to be well, but exhausted.

Ransom row

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder hailed their release as a victory against international terrorism.

But a row has erupted in Germany over reports that a ransom was paid.

Men stand near a German military plane at Bamako airport
German military planes were sent to fly the hostages home
Malian authorities said on Monday that the hostages had been handed over, and at least one phoned home overnight with the good news.

The German press has reported that the kidnappers wanted $5m for each hostage as well as security guarantees.

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

The BBC's Ray Furlong in Berlin says most German newspapers take it for granted that Germany paid a ransom - even though Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said on Monday it was not Germany's policy.

The speculation is that Mali has put forward the money, and that Germany will then provide it with foreign aid.

Debate has also erupted over how far Germany should be responsible for its citizens when they knowingly travel to dangerous parts of the world, our correspondent says.

Some politicians have said the freed hostages should pay part of the cost incurred in securing their release.

Chancellor Schroeder said travellers should take responsibility for their own safety.

"Let me in this hour of joy remind, perhaps even warn, our fellow citizens to prepare their travels to ensure their own safety as much as possible," he said in a statement.

Hostage phones home

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

February/March: 32 European tourists, trekking through east Algerian desert in seven groups, are abducted
13 May: Algerian troops storm hideout near Tamanrasset, freeing 17 hostages
June: One woman hostage, now being held in neighbouring Mali, dies in captivity
19 August: Release reported of last 14 hostages near Gao, Mali
They were later moved to Mali, where intense negotiations were conducted to get them released.

The mother of Dutch hostage Arjen Hilbers told Dutch public radio on Tuesday morning her son had called her by satellite phone.

"He sounded calm and poised and said he was coming home," Anneke Hilbers told Radio 1.

"We were really surprised he called, it was great and we are very happy," she said.

Algerian commandos freed 17 of the 32 hostages in May.

Algeria said the kidnappers belonged to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which is fighting for a purist Islamist state.

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

Heatstroke is thought to have killed one of the hostages, a 45-year-old German woman.

The kidnappers had kept the hostages on the move from one remote hideout to another in a desert where temperatures can reach 45C.

The BBC's Linden Kemkaran
"The hostages had been moved frequently"

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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