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Hostages Freed in Sahara Arrive in Europe

May 14, 2003

COLOGNE, Germany (AP) _ Weary but safe, 17 European hostages _ freed when Algerian commandos raided the Sahara Desert hideout of al-Qaida-linked terrorists _ returned to a bittersweet welcome Wednesday marred by concern for 15 other tourists still held captive.

Six Germans and one Swede arrived in Cologne on a German military plane accompanied by Deputy Foreign Minister Juergen Chrobog, as well as a doctor and psychologist. Just minutes later, a plane carrying 10 Austrians landed in Salzburg, Austria, where they were reunited with family members.

The 32 desert travelers had gone missing in seven groups beginning Feb. 22, all traveling without guides along a 320-mile highway favored by Western motorcycle tourists through an arid region of rocky plains, canyons and mountains near the Libyan border.

No group ever claimed responsibility for kidnapping them, giving rise a range of speculation from Islamic rebels, smugglers or retaliation for the conviction in Frankfurt of four Algerians who plotted to bomb a French holiday market.

Officials declined to provide details of the rescue but the daily newspaper El Watan reported that the commandos freed the 17 in a dawn raid Tuesday, engaging in a battle that lasted several hours and left nine suspected hostage-takers dead. Their hideout was 1,200 miles south of Algiers.

The report said the army located the captives, held in two groups, using reconnaissance planes equipped with thermal vision gear. The report indicated Algerian officials know the whereabouts of those still in captivity, but their fate remained unclear.

Salzburg Gov. Franz Schausberger described a scene of overwhelming joy at the city airport.

``They (the hostages) and their relatives were overly happy, and it took some time before they could even talk to each other because they were overcome by emotions,″ he said.

Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Weiss said: ``They are weak and they have lost weight″ but were well after the desert ordeal.

Johannes Kyrle, the secretary general of the Foreign Ministry who traveled on the plane, declined to give any details about the hostages’ ordeal, saying ``we are showing solidarity to the 15 who are still in Algeria.″

In Germany, some of the hostages leaned heavily on the handrail as they left the plane. Axel Mantey, 30, was the first to emerge, sporting a beard and wearing an Arab robe. He was followed by his girlfriend Melanie Simon, 25, in a bright pink robe, carrying a bouquet of flowers.

The Swede, Harald Ickler, 52, who lives in Bavaria, punched both arms in the air and gave a double victory sign as he descended the stairs.

All seven _ five men and two women _ boarded a bus on the tarmac, but did not talk to reporters. No family members were seen, as officials sought to keep the reunions private.

Reached earlier at their homes, family members of those released were overjoyed. The mother of 30-year-old Michaela Joubert sobbed into the telephone, saying she was ``emotionally drained″ after speaking to her daughter by telephone.

``I am so happy,″ Axel Mantey’s mother, Erika Mantey, said by telephone from her home in Bavaria earlier.

While refusing to go into details of the hostages’ release, Chrobog praised Algeria’s handling of the crisis.

``We are happy about this first success,″ Chrobog said. ``I am hopeful that the last hostages will be freed as quickly.″

German officials had been pressuring Algeria to resolve the mysterious disappearances, but Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer only acknowledged Tuesday that the 16 Germans, 10 Austrians, four Swiss, a Netherlander and a Swede had been kidnapped. He made the revelation to reporters in Tunisia a day after meeting President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers.

The use of the military to free the hostages raised concern about the safety of those still in captivity. ``This has great risk,″ said terrorism expert Berndt Georg Thamm.

He said members of the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, known by its French-language acronym GSPC, trained in Afghanistan, where they would have developed contacts with the al-Qaida leadership.

Algerian news reports have said three Saudi envoys of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden met with a top leaders of the group in December.

Meanwhile, relatives of those still held continued their wait.

``What is positive for their families makes things even worse for the other hostages,″ said Andreas Mitko of Augsburg, whose father Witek has been missing since March 8. ``If it really was a military raid, then the other kidnappers could take revenge on the remaining hostages _ my father, for example.″