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Sahara hostages fly home to freedom in Europe
( 2003-08-20 11:17) (Agencies)

Fourteen Europeans held hostage in the Sahara by Algerian militants for over five months left the desert behind them on Tuesday and flew home to freedom from the West African country of Mali.

Most of them dressed in the baggy native clothes of the Sahara, three with turbans that made them look like Tuareg nomads, the 14 appeared worn and thin during a short stopover in Mali's capital Bamako.

Some smiled, but they made no comment to reporters before being whisked off on a German plane to Cologne at the end of what had begun as an adventure holiday. One hostage is thought to have died of heatstroke in the Sahara's burning vastness.

The exact terms of their release to Malian authorities on Monday remain unclear and Germany has not commented on reports that a ransom was paid. Mali's president thanked Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi for helping, but did not say how.

The nine Germans, four Swiss and one Dutch tourist were among 32 seized in separate incidents in February and March while traveling in southern Algeria, famous for its grave sites but notorious for smuggling and banditry.

The group of 14 were moved to Mali last month after Algerian commandos rescued 17 of the hostages in May. Algeria said the hostages had been snatched by the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, who are fighting for a purist Islamist state.

The kidnappers kept their captives on the move, hiding among rocks and dunes of the vast Sahara in temperatures that regularly topped 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit).

On Tuesday, they spent hours bouncing along rocky desert tracks before taking a plane to Mali's capital from the remote town of Gao, the gateway to the southern Sahara, some 950 km (600 miles) from Bamako.


Germany has pledged to help track down the kidnappers, but refused to comment on media reports that a ransom was paid amid increased concern Germans may be seen as targets for kidnappers.

"It seems important to me that the kidnappers don't escape unpunished," German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said in a statement.

"That is why German security authorities will support the Algerian and Malian partners in everything that could help seize the kidnappers and put them on trial."

Before leaving, they met Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure, who was instrumental in securing their release through negotiations with the captors.

"Right through the negotiations with the hostage-takers, Mali asked for their understanding while never giving up its principles," Toure told a news conference in Bamako.

The hostages have drawn the spotlight of the world's media onto Mali, a little known country whose most famous city, Timbuktu, has become synonymous with isolation.

German media reported that the government was planning to reimburse Mali for meeting ransom demands of about $5 million with development aid from Berlin.

Malian officials said last week kidnappers had demanded a ransom, but their impoverished country could not pay it. German officials have refused to confirm or deny such reports.

Algeria's influential newspaper El Watan accused Berlin of setting a "dangerous precedent" if reports of a ransom payment were true.

The abductions have been a setback for oil-rich Algeria, which had seen a sharp fall in rebel attacks and a return of foreign tourism and investment after a decade of violence that erupted after the cancellation of 1992 elections that radical Islamists were set to win.

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