Fourteen European tourists, held hostage by Algerian militants in the Sahara Desert for over five months, have been released. The group is expected to leave for Germany on Tuesday.
A German military plane in Mali waits to bring the hostages back to Germany.
German and Malian authorities have confirmed that the fourteen European tourists, kidnapped by an Islamic outfit in North Africa for almost six months, are free and safe. The German Foreign Ministry said late Monday evening the group, which include nine Germans, four Swiss and a Dutch national, were freed by their kidnappers near the city of Tessalit in northern Mali.
German Deputy Foreign Minister Jürgen Chrobog, a key official in the negotiating process, praised the Malian authorities for their cooperation. "This was great negotiating skill by the Mali President (Amadou Toumani Toure)," Chrobog told a German television station from the Malian capital of Bamako. "The president confirmed to me that all the hostages are well. So that is also a relief, it seems that no one has been hurt," Chrobog added.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said Chrobog had told him the freed hostages were in the care of German authorities in Mali on Tuesday evening. Schröder commended the cooperation with the Algerian and Malian authorities and offered the countries help in apprehending the kidnappers and in combating terrorism.
The hostages are believed to be heading towards the east Malian town of Gao in an auto convoy, from where they are expected to be airlifted by an airplane belonging to the German armed forces equipped with doctors and paramedics. One of the hostages has reportedly spoken to Chrobog on the telephone and assured him that the group was in good health. The group will be brought to Bamako and flown to the Cologne airport after a meeting with the Malian President.
No news on ransom payment
The hostages will soon be on their way home.
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, though it hasn’t been confirmed by the authorities. However it remains unclear whether any ransom was paid.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said on Monday that the efforts to secure the release of the hostages had been "extremely difficult and delicate" right from the beginning. He however underlined the German government’s position to refuse to pay any ransom. Malian officials said last week that kidnappers had demanded a ransom, but that the impoverished country could not pay it.
The first hostages home await the return of their companions.
Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in an interview with a Dutch television station on Monday he couldn’t confirm whether any ransom had been paid. "You know that Dutch policy is, and will always be, not to pay ransoms when Dutch nationals are abducted." The minister added, "There was close cooperation with Germany, whose nationals made up most of the hostages, and with the Netherlands and Switzerland. Germany obviously played first fiddle."
On Monday there were conflicting reports about the release of the hostages. The handing over of the hostages to Malian negotiators was delayed apparently after storms and rain hampered the transport of the hostages to the designated location for the hand over.
"Hostages should pay for release"
In Germany meanwhile a debate has already broken out on the apparent foolhardiness of the tourists traveling to a dangerous region without adequate preparations. Parliamentary leader of the conservative opposition of the Christian Democrats, Wolfgang Bosbach has demanded that kidnapped tourists should in certain cases shoulder a share of the costs involved in securing their release. "Those who get themselves in danger through their own frivolity and for the thrill of it, should reckon on with paying for their release," Bosbach told the Financial Times Deutschland. The minister also criticized that tourists often ignored travel warnings issued by the foreign ministry.