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German: Talks for Hostages in Last Stage

August 18, 2003

BERLIN (AP) _ Negotiators are in the last stage of talks to win the release of 14 hostages held for six months in the Sahara desert, a government spokesman said Monday.

Bela Anda refused to comment on German media reports that the captives already had been turned over to middlemen in the West African nation of Mali. ``At this time I can only say that we are in a very important final phase,″ Anda said.

A German air force plane equipped to handle ill or injured people stood by at the airport in Mali’s capital, Bamako. German deputy foreign minister Juergen Chrobog arrived in Mali on Sunday for his third trip to discuss the hostages’ release.

``We’re counting on the success of the mediation efforts by the Malian side,″ Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told reporters in Berlin. ``We hope that we will get back all of the hostages healthy and sound as soon as possible so that they can return to their families.″

Chrobog brought home 17 other hostages who were set free in May in Algeria. The 15 remaining captives were believed to have been taken to neighboring Mali by their abductors, and one, a German woman, died of heat stroke and was buried in July.

In all, seven groups of European tourists were reported missing from Feb. 22 to March 8, all while traveling without guides in the southern Sahara desert.

German television reported Sunday that the remaining nine Germans, four Swiss and a Dutchman were freed by their captors and turned over to intermediaries, but the release hit a hitch when the group didn’t show up as expected at an airstrip in northern Mali.

Algerian authorities say the hostage-takers are from the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, one of two Islamic extremist movements that have fought a bloody insurgency in Algeria for more than a decade. The group also has been linked to the al-Qaida terror network.

The German Foreign Ministry remained cautious, saying it had no comment on the reported release. But there were other signs that freedom could be imminent.

The parents of hostage Sascha Notter, 27, were seen driving away from their house in Stuttgart under police escort. The tourists were expected to be flown to a military airport in Cologne once freed.

ZDF television, reporting from Bamako, said the hostages were exhausted and weakened after their desert ordeal, but healthy under the circumstances. However, one of the tourists has developed diabetes, ZDF said.

Foreign ministry spokesman Walter Lindner said there was no sign that any captives were seriously ill.

Hostages who were freed earlier said their captors divided them into groups and moved them to new hiding places every night.

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