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18 Aug 2003 09:18
A group of 14 European tourists held hostage for up to six months were on Sunday freed by their captors, officials in the northern Malian town of Gao said, amid a report that a ransom had been paid.
The officials said the nine Germans, four Swiss and a Dutchman, abducted by a suspected Islamic extremist group, were released in the town of Tessalit in the northeastern region of Kidal.
Germany’s public ZDF television reported that it followed a payment to the kidnappers on Saturday of a ransom, although the station said that the money did not come from the German government.
According to ZDF, a German air force transport plane is to fly the missing tourists from a military airport in northern Mali to the capital Bamako where they would be undergo medical checks.
Juergen Chrobog, a German foreign ministry state secretary, arrived earlier on Sunday in Bamako and spoke confidently of the hostages’ imminent release.
ZDF said he would accompany the tourists home, possibly as early as Sunday evening, on the Transall plane, which is medically equipped.
“We have taken all the necessary measures” for the evacuation, he said when he arrived. “I cannot tell you if they will be released tonight, it could take a bit longer.
“But we have high hopes.
The fact I have come with a medical plane shows we are confident.”
A total of 32 Europeans were seized in southern Algeria earlier this year, but 17 were freed in a raid by Algerian special forces in May, and one German woman, Michaela Spitzer (46) is thought to have died from heat exhaustion.
Previous reports had suggested the captors were demanding a ransom of five-million euros ($5,5-million) for each person but Germany was unwilling to pay, fearing it would encourage copycat abductions.
Amari Saifi, an Algerian army renegade known as Abderrezak the “Para”, has been identified this week as the head of the abductors.
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