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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 August, 2003, 16:01 GMT 17:01 UK
Hostages tell of desert emotions
Freed European hostages meet President Amadou Toumani Toure (l)
The hostages met Mali's president before leaving for Germany
Some of the Europeans freed from a five-month hostage ordeal in the Sahara desert have spoken for the first time about their experiences.

The tourists told journalists of their surprise and joy at their release, which they only found out was happening about two days ago.

The nine Germans, four Swiss and a Dutchman landed in Germany on a military plane on Wednesday morning from Mali's capital, Bamako.

"You can imagine what a joy it was [to be free] after six months," former hostage Witek Mitko, 49, told journalists in his home town of Augsburg.

You always hope. We were so strong
Freed hostage Kurt Schuster
"We didn't learn we were going to be released until exactly two days ago. We couldn't believe it, but that's what we were told."

Glad to be alive

"You always hope. We were so strong," said another hostages, 64-year-old Kurt Schuster.

"First we hoped to be free for Easter, then our grandson's first communion, then a globetrotters' conference and then my mother's birthday, but it didn't happen.

"But we never despaired."

There were appeals for the hostages to be left in peace to recover.

"We have to come to terms with it all first," said Mr Schuster.

Freed hostage Erna Schuster

"I think that they now all need time to come to terms with their traumatic experiences," added German Deputy Foreign Minister Juergen Chrobog, who went to Mali as the hostage release talks reached their critical phase.

The grandfather of the youngest hostage, 18-year-old Swiss Silja Staehli, 18, unwrapped a bunch of three large sunflowers as he waited at Zurich airport to greet her.

"The first symbolizes our joy, the second our relief and the third our thanks," said Fritz-Hans Schwarzenbach, 77.

The BBC's Ray Furlong in Germany says the former hostages looked well despite their ordeal.

The group had flown to the Malian capital from the northern oasis town of Gao, after a 595-kilometre (370-miles) journey by road from the desert outpost of Tessalit, one day after their release.

The hostages held emotional reunions with their families, before speaking publicly.

Erna Schuster, 63, who is diabetic, said she was simply glad to have survived.

Mr Chrobog said criticism of the affair should be put aside.

"We should take a step back from critical questions," he said. "I think we should just be happy that the situation has ended like this. It could have been a lot worse."

A row has erupted in Germany over reports that a ransom was paid, and that the kidnappers asked for $5m for each hostage as well as security guarantees.

'No escape'

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.

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 in Mali
Our correspondent 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.

Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure thanked Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi for helping in efforts to free the hostages, but did not say how, the Associated Press reported.

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

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder welcomed the hostages' release on Tuesday but urged action to be taken against their kidnappers.

"After the happy ending, one must look to the future. It seems important to me that the kidnappers should not be allowed to escape unpunished," he said.

Algeria has linked the kidnappers to the extremist Islamic Salafist Group for Call and Combat, believed to have ties to al-Qaeda.

Operations cost

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

Men stand near a German military plane at Bamako airport
German military planes were sent to fly the hostages home
Some politicians have said the freed hostages should pay part of the cost incurred in securing their release.

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

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

They were later moved to Mali, where intense negotiations were conducted to get them released.

Algerian commandos freed 17 of the 32 hostages in May.

Another hostage, 45-year-old German Michaela Spitzer, died as kidnappers moved the hostages from one remote hideout to another in a desert where temperatures can reach 45C.

She died "with the other hostages around her" because of exhaustion and dehydration, Mr Chrobog said.

The location of her body was known, he said, and he was confident it could be recovered.

The BBC's Tristana Moore
"The details of the rescue mission are still sketchy"

In pictures: Hostages return
20 Aug 03  |  Photo Gallery
Mali joins hostages search
01 Aug 03  |  Africa
Tourist hostage 'dies in Sahara'
29 Jul 03  |  Europe

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