The 14 European hostages held for nearly six months in the Sahara have arrived home, but it's not just open arms greeting them. German politicians are saying the hostages should pay part of the costs for their release.
Taste of freedom -- some of the tourists arrive in Germany after their six-month kidnapping ordeal.
When the 14 European tourists held hostage nearly half a year in the Sahara desert touched down in Cologne-Bonn airport on Wednesday morning, they were greeted with check-waving politicians demanding that the freed captives foot the bill for their costly release operation.
On Tuesday, deputy parliamentary leader of the opposition Christian Democrats, Wolfgang Bosbach, pointed to the hefty bill. Tourists who "frivolously get into danger just for the thrill of it, should be prepared to pay a part of the costs involved in their release," Bosbach said. He added there were some citizens who traveled to risky areas in the expectation, that if something went wrong, the government would take care of it and German taxpayers would pay for the entire operation to secure their release.
Bosbach’s statement sparked a heated round of debate as politicians of all stripes jumped into the discussion on whether or not tourists should be held accountable in the event of a hostage situation.
Publicity earnings to help pay the bill
Phillipine soldiers take action against the kidnappers.
Ludger Volmer, foreign policy spokesman for the ruling junior coalition Green party said, "when travelers invite risks upon themselves, the costs for the necessary state intervention cannot be saddled onto the general public." Volmer pointed to another similar case when German tourists taken hostage on the island of Jolo in the Philippines three years ago, paid a share of the costly operation (photo) to get them released. "The Jolo hostages earned money at the time by selling the exclusive rights to their story. But we didn’t give them the full bill," Volmer, a former deputy foreign minister, stressed.
At the same time Volmer said the current discussion was "redundant" because according to Germany’s consular law, it was the government’s duty to help its citizens, who stray into danger overseas. "On the other hand, the same law says the bill should be charged, at least in part, to the affected persons," he explained.
Ernst Hinsken of the conservative Christian Social Union, urged the freed hostages and their families to voluntarily pay the state a part of the money they would make by selling the rights to their story.
The fourteen European tourists disembark at Cologne-Bonn Airport in Germany from a military plane on Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2003
Several other politicians called the discussion "absurd" and "insensitive" at a time when the hostages were being reunited with families and friends after a harrowing ordeal.
German Deputy Foreign Minister Jürgen Chrobog, who played a key role in negotiating the release of the tourists, said it was the wrong time for such debates. "We should distance ourselves from all critical questions for now," he said. "I think, we should first be happy about the outcome. It could have been much worse."
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer refused to answer questions on the tourists’ share of the financial costs. "Today is the day of their return, the hostages need to recover first," he said. Chancellor Schröder only indirectly referred to the issue during a press conference in Berlin on Tuesday. "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."
The 14 European tourists, including nine Germans, four Swiss and a Dutch national, were among 32 European tourists seized in separate incidents in February and March this year while traveling by motorcycle and all-terrain vehicles in southern Algeria, a region notorious for smuggling and banditry. Algerian commandos managed to free 17 of the hostages in May when they invaded the group’s camp. The kidnappers are believed to belong to the Islamist Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat and are said to enjoy ties to al Qaeda.
After the hideout was stormed several of the kidnappers killed, the remaining hostages were moved to neighboring Mali last month, where official negotiators from all three countries established contact with the kidnappers.
Questions abound over ransom payment
But even as the debate over the financial costs of the operation hit the press, it still remained unclear whether the German government had paid a ransom at all to the kidnappers.
German public television ARD reported the government had paid €4.6 million to the militants for the release of the hostages in addition to a negotiation fee. The overcall cost did not exceed five million, ARD said and added the kidnappers had originally demanded €45 million.
Mali President Amadou Toumani Toure
However, the government refused to confirm the amount and denied other reports that the Malian government (photo) had paid the five-million-euro ransom, which Berlin allegedly would pay back in the form of developmental aid. On Monday, Foreign Minister Fischer underlined the government’s strict policy on not dealing directly with kidnappers and never paying ransom.
But few in Germany are buying the government line. Many German newspapers speculated the government did indeed pay a ransom and even terrorism experts aren’t ruling it out. Rolf Tophoven, Head of the Essen Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy said in a newspaper interview, "it’s clear that money was paid, otherwise one wouldn’t get anything."
Terrorism expert Elmar Theveßen agreed. "We’ll probably never know the exact sum of ransom money. But hopefully it was enough."