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Kidnapped Tourist Says Group Sought Money

May 15, 2003

BERLIN (AP) _ An Austrian tourist held for nearly eight weeks in the Sahara Desert said Thursday the men who captured his tour group wanted ransom to buy weapons for their fight to topple Algeria’s military-backed government and install an Islamic state.

European governments have refused to speculate about the motives behind the disappearance of 32 Europeans since Feb. 22 while traveling in part of the Sahara near Algeria’s border with Libya. Nor have they explained how 17 of the hostages were freed this week.

But the account by Gerhard Wintersteller was in line with statements by Algerian authorities, who blamed the abductions on an al-Qaida-linked Salafist Group for Call and Combat, one of two main insurgency movements.

Wintersteller, a 63-year-old retired technician, disappeared in late March, along with seven other tourists. One early theory was that they had fallen victim to smugglers who frequent the border region.

But Wintersteller described his abductors as Islamic extremists who ``wanted to install an Islamic state in Algeria and overthrow the government.″ He quoted the kidnappers as saying they were negotiating with the hostages’ governments.

``They wanted ransom money _ no political demands, as far as I know. They wanted money to get weapons,″ he said.

Helicopters patrolling overhead throughout their captivity gave the hostages hope they would be freed, Wintersteller said in an interview with Germany’s RTL television.

He refused to talk about how the captives were freed, citing fears for the safety of 15 tourists still held. European governments also have remained silent.

But according to the Algerian daily El Watan, Algerian commandos freed the 17 tourists _ 10 Austrians, six Germans and a Swede _ in a raid early Tuesday on the kidnappers’ hideaway 1,200 miles south of the capital, Algiers.

The newspaper reported Thursday that one member of the security forces and four kidnappers were killed, revising a report Wednesday that nine kidnappers had been killed.

Another daily, Le Quotidien d’Oran, quoted a desert guide as saying security forces have been reinforced in the Illizi region, near the Libyan border, where the second group reportedly is held.

It was not immediately clear who was holding the second group of hostages _ 10 Germans, one Netherlander and four Swiss. El Watan cited an unidentified security source as saying the kidnappers may not be aware of the first assault.

Few of the released hostages have spoken publicly about their ordeal, but Ulrich Hanel, one of the Germans held, confirmed a battle.

``I’m happy that we survived the firefight when we were freed,″ Hanel told The Associated Press by telephone from his home in the southern town of Bad Staffelstein. He declined to elaborate.

An official at the University of Bayreuth _ where another of the freed Germans, 25-year-old Melanie Simon, is a student _ cast doubt on reports that the first set of hostages were freed in a planned raid.

Citing information from Simon’s father, Prof. Ludwig Zoeller said the hostages appear to have ``seized an opportunity and fled into the arms of a military patrol.″

Wintersteller said his group, traveling in four cars on a highway frequented by tourists, was seized when it slowed down to exchange greetings with German tourists in a car traveling in the opposition direction.

``As we stopped, eight terrorists jumped out and held their Kalashnikovs in front of us,″ he said. ``We had to throw ourselves on the ground. They ripped the car keys out of our hands.″

The kidnappers moved about constantly, forcing the hostages to walk long distances at night. Toward the end of the ordeal, ``we were fleeing every night,″ Wintersteller said.

``Our shoes were shredded and we were at the end of our physical strength.″

``When they said at around two or three in the morning, ‘this is where we’re camping,’ we just fell down and spent the last hours of the night like that,″ Wintersteller said.

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