Commando raid frees Algeria hostages

Commando raid frees Algeria hostages

Staff and agencies, The Guardian, May 14, 2003

Detail from a German poster showing tourists missing in Algeria since February 2003. 17 of the 32 were freed unharmed on May 13
Detail from a German poster showing tourists missing in Algeria since February 2003. 17 of the 32 were freed unharmed on May 13

Half of a group of 32 European tourists kidnapped in Algeria over two months ago have been freed after Algerian commandos attacked their hostage takers, it emerged today.

According to the El Watan newspaper in Algeria, nine suspected kidnappers were killed in the raid early on Tuesday in the Sahara desert, 1,900km south of the capital, Algiers. So far there have been no reports of the whereabouts or safety of the other 16 tourists.

Algerian state radio today said the kidnappers were outlawed Islamist militants, Reuters reported. Quoting an armed forces statement, the radio station said the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat – also known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat – was responsible. The group is suspected of having links to the al-Qaida network and is waging a bloody war against Algerian authorities.

The army found two groups of hostage takers and their captives by using thermal vision gear on reconnaissance flights.

Another 15 European tourists are understood to remain captives in the southern Illizi region. The group of 32 who went missing in February comprised 16 Germans, 10 Austrians, four Swiss, a Dutch person and a Swede.

German and Austrian officials confirmed today that 16 hostages were freed unharmed but refused to comment on the circumstances of the release, saying they were concerned about the safety of those still being held. The German interior minister, Otto Schily, said « there is hope » that the remaining missing tourists « will be free soon ».

The Algerian government, which has provided few details since the hostages were taken, declined to comment about the newspaper report.

In April, an Algerian official said the travellers had only themselves to blame because they had set out without guides and had not told the authorities of their planned routes, according to Reuters. The group had been visiting archaeological sites, it was reported.

The Austrian president, Thomas Klestil, sent a telegram of thanks to his Algerian counterpart, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, saying he was impressed by the « prudent way » in which the Algerian authorities won the hostages’ freedom.

It was not until May 4 that Algeria confirmed it knew the group had been kidnapped and that it was in contact with the hostage takers. State radio reported the following day that the tourists were being held in the Algerian Saharan desert by an unknown group and would soon be released.

But the following day the Algerian government said it was not negotiating with the kidnappers, prompting the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, to fly to the country to inquire personally about the fate of the group.