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Freed Hostage: Kidnappers Shot Captive

May 18, 2003

BERLIN (AP) _ Kidnappers who held 17 European tourists in the Sahara Desert shot and wounded a female hostage during an escape attempt at the start of the ordeal, a former captive said Saturday.

Meanwhile, the fate of 15 tourists still held hostage in Algeria _ 10 Germans, four Swiss and a Dutchman _ remained unclear as government officials maintained a lid on information.

``Efforts to bring the victims home safe and sound are continuing,″ a German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Saturday, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.

Citing concerns for the safety of the remaining captives, the spokeswoman refused to comment on details, including a French radio report Friday that negotiations were under way with the kidnappers and that a ransom could be forthcoming.

The first group was freed Tuesday after a gunbattle between Algerian army commandos and the captors. Algerian authorities blamed the kidnapping on the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, which is fighting to topple the country’s military-backed government and has been linked to the al-Qaida network.

A former hostage, Harald Ickler, said Saturday that the captors called themselves mujahedeen _ a term for Islamic fighters _ while insisting they were a ``completely independent group.″ They had expected Germany to pay ransom, he told The Associated Press by telephone from his home in Bavaria. His comments were largely in line with those of another hostage, an Austrian who has said the kidnappers wanted money to buy weapons.

Ickler was captured along with five fellow tourists March 21 when their three-car convoy was ambushed by men with assault rifles. When the lead car tried to drive off, the kidnappers fired at the tires, but a bullet also hit passenger Michaela Joubert in the back, Ickler said.

The kidnappers attended to Joubert’s wound, Ickler said. ``They were very apologetic, but they said he shouldn’t have tried to flee.″

Weeks of hardship followed as the kidnappers forced the hostages on long desert marches to evade the Algerian army as it closed in on their trail.

Former captives have given conflicting accounts of how they were released _ in a planned raid by the Algerian army or because their kidnappers let the hostages go.

``They (Algerian soldiers) had us under observation. I have the impression that this was a day that happened to fit,″ said

Ickler, a Swede who was held along with six Germans and 10 Austrians, suggested Algerian soldiers moved in on the kidnappers after they had abandoned the hostages and were trying to get away.

The 32 tourists vanished while exploring the Sahara, the first in mid-February.

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