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Hitch Reported in Freeing Sahara Hostages

August 18, 2003

BERLIN (AP) _ The hoped-for release of 14 European tourists kidnapped months ago in the Sahara desert reportedly hit a snag Sunday even as a German envoy arrived in the West African nation of Mali saying he was ready to bring them home.

Germany’s ZDF television reported it had information that the nine Germans, four Swiss and a Dutchman were set free by their captors and turned over to intermediaries involved in the effort.

But rival public station ARD later reported that the liberation failed to take place. A military plane from Mali sent to pick up freed hostages in the northern town of Thessalit returned empty Sunday to Gao, from where it started, ARD said.

ARD speculated that the hostages were dispersed over a wide area and were still being assembled for liberation. The Europeans were captured by rebels fighting the government in Algeria, but were believed to have crossed into neighboring desert of northern Mali.

The German envoy, deputy foreign minister Juergen Chrobog, said about an hour before the ZDF report that the captives were not yet free.

``There are no latest developments,″ Chrobog said after arriving at Bamako airport. ``We have our aircraft here as you can see. We are hoping that we can bring them home very soon, but I don’t know where they are _ the hostages I mean.

``I don’t know how long it will take,″ he said.

Mali’s foreign minister, Lansana Traore, said Sunday that negotiations were continuing.

The foreign ministry in Berlin refused to comment on the television reports, which named no sources. In Bern, Switzerland, foreign ministry spokesman Simon Hubacher also had no comment on reports of a release.

The crisis began in mid-February with the captures in separate groups of 32 European tourists in the Algerian desert. In May, 17 hostages were freed during a raid on a desert hideout by Algerian security forces.

Fifteen others remained in captivity. One of them, a German woman, reportedly died of heat stroke and was buried by her abductors in June.

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

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