Fourteen European tourists, held hostage by Algerian militants in the Sahara Desert for over five months, were expected to be heading home on Monday. But the plane that was supposed to pick them up returned empty.
Some of the missing tourists on a poster published by the German Federal Criminal Office.
German diplomats in the West African country of Mali said on Monday the kidnapped tourists, among them Germans, Dutch and Swiss, would not be flown to Germany until Tuesday at the earliest.
German public television channel ZDF reported on Monday the hostages were in reasonably good health. But a ZDF reporter in Bamako said the 14 were naturally exhausted after their almost six-month ordeal in the desert. They are expected to be treated in hospitals in the Malian capital before being flown home.
Earlier German Deputy Foreign Minister Jürgen Chrobog, who arrived in Mali for a second visit in four days with a plane ready to take the hostages homes, was optimistic. "I wouldn't be here if he didn't have high hopes. But we're prepared for everything," he told reporters. He said the German government had "prepared the ground to get them (the hostages) home," he stressed.
The tourists, who include nine Germans, four Swiss and a Dutch national, were expected to land in Germany on Monday evening. But the German military plane that had been awaiting their arrival at the airport in the Malian town of Goa returned to Bamako without the vacationers to allow the crew -- that had been on duty for as long as possible -- a rest. A second plane flew from Cologne to the Malian capital to replace it.
Politicians in Germany played down the optimism evident in media reports on Monday. Foreign policy spokesman for the Green party, Ludger Volmer, said in a radio interview that things could "still go badly wrong and that’s why one shouldn’t rejoice too soon."
The 14 were among 32 European tourists seized in separate incidents in February and March this year while travelling in southern Algeria. Algerian commandos managed to free 17 of the hostages by killing their kidnappers belonging to the Islamist outfit Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. One of the hostages, a 46-year-old German woman died of heatstroke on June 28.
After the shootout, the remaining hostages were moved to neighboring Mali last month. German and Malian negotiators have been in contact with the kidnappers, who according to German media reports want $5 million for each hostage. There were no reports on the outcome of the ransom negotiations.
The German Foreign Ministry in Berlin refused on Monday to comment on any aspect of the expected release of the hostages.