Sahara warning as 31 tourists vanish
Paul Webster in Paris, The Observer, April 13, 2003
The endless dunes and towering rock formations of the southern Sahara have a new riddle to guard. This weekend the number of would-be adventurers who have disappeared in the Algerian desert’s sands over the past two month rose to 31.
On Friday Viennese authorities said contact had been lost with two rock climbers who had travelled to the area just days before last week’s warnings from European governments against travel to one of the world’s remotest areas .Hundreds of troops, backed by planes, helicopters and Tuareg scouts, are now working to find seven groups of travellers, including eight women, who set out in four-wheel drives or on motorcycles.
Algerian officials in Paris said they had no explanations, such as political or criminal kidnapping or problems with satellite guidance systems caused by US surveillance planes in the Iraq war .
‘The travellers set off at different times on various routes,’ said Paris-based Algerian journalist Mohamed Rachid. ‘The authorities believe their disappearance over such a short period is more than just a terrible coincidence caused by conditions such as sandstorms.’
Over the three years since Algeria declared the area safe after civil war, hundreds of westerners have rushed to visit an area described by one Paris travel agent as ‘a succession of fantastic multi-coloured landscapes set in endless wilderness’.
Many Britons are believed to be driving among the thousands of square miles in an area bordered by Tamanrasset and Djanet, near the Libyan and Niger frontiers where the explorers -15 Germans, 10 Austrians, four Swiss, a Swede and a Dutchman – were last seen. The alarm was raised on 22 February when trace was lost of three groups, totalling 11 people, travelling without guides.
Two weeks later, four more tourists went missing and in the following fortnight contact was lost with another 14. Eight Germans travelling in four vehicles, who have not been heard of since 23 March, included three men celebrating retirement.
A German police squad has been sent to Tamanrasset to question camel drivers who use the route to bring smuggled as well as legal goods from neighbouring states. Algerian officials have complained that the groups were inexperienced, but most were led by experienced guides.
Andreas Mitek, son of German driver Witko Mitek, 42, believes his father had been kidnapped, possibly by smugglers, after seeing something he should not have, but no ransom demand has been received. ‘He is not a man to lose his way,’ Andreas said. ‘He knew all about desert driving and wouldn’t have taken risks.’
Manfred Notter said his son, Sascha, 26, was travelling by motorbike with two companions and has not been heard of since 15 March. He was also an experienced desert traveller and, says his father, ‘couldn’t have got lost’.
Notter had been told the most likely explanation was a kidnapping by smugglers or local tribesmen. The possibility had not been ruled out that the explorers were being held hostage as a reprisal for the invasion of Iraq.