Captives Speak Out on Sahara Kidnappers
SALZBURG, Austria (AP) _ The Algerian kidnappers who released 17 Europeans after weeks of captivity in the Sahara desert admired Osama bin Laden but denied any links to al-Qaida, one of the freed hostages said Monday.
``They said that Osama bin Laden was an idol for them, but that theirs was a separate group in Algeria,″ Andreas Bleckmann, 25, told The Associated Press.
The 10 Austrians were captured in March and were freed May 13, with six Germans and a Swede.
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 al-Qaida.
Bleckmann spoke to AP after a press conference that he and eight other Austrian ex-hostages gave in Salzburg, where many of them live. He described the captors as humane and religious men who never put the hostages’ lives in danger.
``They were religious and they valued life,″ Bleckmann said, adding that he was given three meals a day, mainly porridge. ``The flies and mosquitoes were the worst thing of all.″
One of the hostages, Sabine Wintersteller, was hospitalized as a result of her captivity, according to her father, Gerhard Wintersteller, who was also among the captives. ``Things didn’t go as well for her,″ he said without elaborating.
Fifteen more tourists are still in captivity, and Algerian authorities have been negotiating for their release. There were conflicting reports Monday about their fate, with one Algerian newspaper saying their Islamic captors had already set them free, but another reporting that negotiations were still under way.
The hostages feared for their lives at first, but soon realized their captors would not harm them, the Austrians said.
``We almost became friends,″ said Bleckmann’s father, Ingo. He said he developed ``some sympathy″ for them.
``They weren’t brutal terrorists,″ he said. ``They wanted to protect our lives as best as they could.″
Ingo Bleckmann said the captors told him they wanted to make the world realize that Islamic fundamentalists had won democratic elections in 1992 by a large majority but were prevented from taking power by the military.
``They said they wanted to raise awareness _ even among Europeans _ that a wrong had been committed against them,″ he said. ``It was in our interest to understand them. ... and of course we knew about their motive. That was the first thing that we wanted to find out.″
Accounts of the release were sketchy, but the Austrians said that they heard shots being fired for about an hour beforehand and saw three helicopters flying above.
``I was able to see the three helicopters very clearly,″ said Johann Ruppnig, 69. Ruppnig also said the conditions during their captivity were not harsh, and ``there was always enough water.″