Salafists may have abducted European tourists

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

CAIRO Islamic insurgents are believed to have abducted up to 31 European tourists in Algeria.

Algerian sources said military units have found evidence that the European nationals were kidnapped more than two months ago during their tour of the Sahara desert. The sources did not rule out that some of the tourists have been killed.

The tourists were comprised of nationals from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland and traveled through the Sahara in seven separate groups. A German special operations team has been in the Sahara conducting a search in cooperation with Algerian authorities.

The sources said a search by about 5,000 Algerian troops have uncovered a torched truck used by a German couple on the Saharan tour. They said the evidence and location at the site suggest that the tourists were attacked by the Salafist Brigade for Combat and Call.

The Salafist group is regarded as the most active Islamic insurgency group in Algeria and linked to Al Qaida. Since January, Algerian troops and helicopters have been engaged in an intensive search-and-destroy operation for the Salafist leadership. The Algerian daily Al Khabar reported that 300 Salafist combatants have been located and surrounded in Tebessa in the northeast near the Tunisian border.

Over the last few days, Algerian officials have expressed hope that the tourists might be alive. They said the Europeans might have been transferred to Salafist strongholds in either northern or southern Algeria. The Salafists were said to have established recruitment and training centers near the Libyan border in 2002.

"They are well and their lives are not in danger," an Algerian official told the French daily Le Monde on Monday.

Col. Massoud Ben Boudria, responsible for the Algerian military's search operation, said he believed the Salafists were not involved in the abduction. Ben Boudria also assessed that the Europeans were alive.

"I am deeply convinced that the tourists are alive and are, perhaps, outside our national territory," Ben Boudria told the Algerian daily Al Watan.

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