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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 August, 2003, 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
Footing the bill for the Sahara ordeal
Fourteen freed European hostages may only just be arriving home after being held in the Sahara desert, but some politicians in Germany are already suggesting that one of their first trips should be to the bank.

A German police poster shows the portraits of the 14 remaining hostages
Some politicians are suggesting the hostages should have chosen a safer destination
There has been no confirmation that a ransom was paid to their kidnappers, but the German media are taking it as read that Mali - the poverty-stricken West African state where the hostages were being held - stumped up the cash and would be recompensed by Berlin in foreign aid.

According to this theory, the German Government will have avoided making a direct payment to a militant group - which would have left it open to the charge it had been blackmailed - while at the same time securing the release of its people.

This assumption has unleashed a fierce debate as to whether the taxpayer should end up paying for adventure holidays that go horribly wrong. Politicians have been quick to seize on any: "Why couldn't they have gone to the Canary Islands?" sentiment.

How would any government have acted in this case to stop those hostages being killed?
Wolfgang Muenchau
Editor, FT Deutschland
"Those people who are coming home today - and we are all looking forward to that - must nevertheless pay something towards their rescue," said Gert Weisskirchen, an MP from the ruling Social Democrats.

No guides

The German Foreign Ministry had issued a general caution for travellers to the Algerian Sahara at the time of the hostage-taking, although this was not a formal warning, a spokesman for the foreign ministry said on Monday.

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

By April, as it became clear that the likeliest explanation for their disappearance was abduction by the smugglers, drug runners or Islamic militants known to occupy the vast desert wilderness, the Algerian authorities started to point the finger of blame at the tourists themselves - prompting anger from worried relatives.

Those who recklessly put themselves in danger just for the thrill of it must also reckon with the fact that they'll be asked to contribute something towards the rescue
Wolfgang Bosbach
CDU
They should not, they insisted, have been travelling without a guide and they should have informed the authorities of their planned route before setting off.

A first group of tourists was rescued by the Algerian authorities in May during a commando operation.

Seventeen members of the group, mainly Austrians and Germans, were freed after a raid on the hideout of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.

The remaining group was believed to have been taken to neighbouring Mali, and increasingly high-profile negotiations between Bamako and Berlin began over how to secure their release.

Some of the German media allege that the kidnappers were paid $5m for each hostage as well as security guarantees, although other reports suggest this was the figure for all 14.

'Incentive'

The controversy is one that erupts with increasing frequency, as tourists and adventurers seek greater thrills and vie for daring accomplishments.

In June, the Australian taxpayer paid an estimated $700,000 for the rescue of rower Mike Noel-Smith and his friend, who were caught up in a fierce storm in the Indian Ocean while trying to row over 4,000 miles in record time.

The Australian Navy was called out to rescue the two men, free of charge, amid several editorials questioning whether the men should have attempted such an ambitious trip in the first place.

But in the case of paying off kidnappers, emerging alongside the taxpayer outrage is an equally serious concern as to whether governments should expose themselves to blackmail.

If the reports that Germany intends to pay Mali back for footing the hostages' bill transpire to be true, the distinction between an indirect and direct payment may prove a rather subtle one.

Commentators are already pointing to the kidnapping industry which exists in the Philippines, where Muslim separatist rebels have raised millions of dollars in ransoms over the years.

"It is an incentive for future hostage-takers to do the same thing," says Wolfgang Muenchau, editor of Financial Times Deutschland.

"But how would any government have acted in this case to stop those hostages being killed?"

Should governments bail out their citizens when they get in trouble abroad? Tell us what you think by filling in the postbox below.


This is an increasing, and disturbing, trend in recent years for kidnappers/terrorists to blackmail governments. In this specific case, I don't think that the German taxpayers should foot the bill because the trip was a personal one, and not an adventure sponsored by the government. The tourists went of their own accord, and it is inconceivable that they were not aware of the risks. In cases where diplomats or other citizens of a country being sponsored for a trip (such as athletes) are kidnapped, in that case using government funds to pay for the release is surely justified. Just my $0.02.
Pratick, GA, USA

Governments should always try to rescue their citizens, even if it may seem that a rescue is very expensive: after all, who would expect an indigent citizen to do without essential but costly medical care? I suspect that most people would be extremely unhappy should they find themselves abandoned by their own state for reasons of cost. However, a state would be extremely foolish to pay a ransom, no matter how small or indirect, for the life of any citizen: to reward hostage taking is to promote it, and in the long term will take a greater toll of lives. Any ransom would be far better spent on police or military operations directed at the kidnappers.
Edward Dixon, UK

I would not ever go anywhere I don't know without doing my homework
Menno Aartsen, USA
There is no telling whether or not these folks would have been kidnapped if they had had guides or guards, so I think the point is moot. From a personal perspective, I would not ever go anywhere I don't know without doing my homework, and in applicable situations, a local guide and, if necessary, a visit to local law enforcement. I also commonly contact my country's embassy or consulate in a region unknown to me, so they have a record of where I am, and can tell me where the no-go areas are. I can't see the point of seeking thrills to the point where I might lose my life.
Menno Aartsen, USA

Tourism of any sort is still a luxury. It is one thing to use public funds for the rescue of humanitarian workers, officials, and the like, but tourists travel at their own risk. The Government has the responsibility to warn travellers of regions that are dangerous. When that risk is made known, then the tourist should shoulder any rescue operations and similar costs. Why should the average tax payer be forced to pay for the follies of others' luxuries?
Dennis, France

These people should have been left in the Sahara. The German taxpayer is sick of bailing people out of 'unfortunate' situations.
David Burdekin, Germany

Absolutely. The same government which does not preclude me to travel to a specific country should back me when I am in trouble in such specific country. Otherwise my government should issue passports containing restrictions in travelling to those specific countries.
Miguel Martinez, Spain

This is a tough call. Since life is more valuable than any financial amount. Clear recklessness should not be taken lightly, and financial punishment should rest on the shoulders of the reckless. Society's role is to help those in need who have arrived at that point through difficulties and misfortune, not foolishness and stupidity.
NH, Philadelphia, USA

It depends on the nature of the trouble and the known risk of the travel. Some of those who fall into trouble are indeed naive and reckless guys, who neglect any rational advice. Nevertheless, in case of life and death, the government have to rescue them first, but they should consider recovering the cost from them afterwards.
Steve Cheung, Hong Kong

What it comes down to is whether the people involved deliberately put themselves in harms way. When planning to travel, the individuals should check out their governments' recommendations as to whether or not the country is considered safe. If the government say not to go to a country, then if you still insist on going, anything that happens is on your own head. Of course, this means that governments would have to give definite yes/no answers, not vague suggestions. With regards to the navy helping sailors at sea, let's face it, no one can predict storms and as such rescue missions should get the go head.
Sean Farren, Ireland


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



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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