Algeria negotiates for freedom of Europeans

Monday, May 5, 2003

CAIRO Algeria has launched negotiations for the release 31 European tourists believed being held by an Islamic insurgency group linked to Al Qaida.

Algerian officials said the negotiations began more three weeks ago in cooperation with European Union states, Middle East Newsline reported. Teams from several EU states are in Algiers to monitor the talks with the captors of the European tourists, missing in the Sahara desert since February.

Algerian officials said they cannot confirm reports that the tourists are being held by an Islamic insurgency group linked to Al Qaida. The officials said the tourists were being held in the Tamelrik mountain, about 1,500 kilometres southeast of Algiers.

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"Contacts are taking place at the moment regarding the release of the tourists," Algerian Tourism Minister Lakhdar Dorbani said.

The Algerian daily Al Watan said negotiations had begun in mid-April for the release of the European nationals. The newspaper, quoting Algerian security officials, said the captors were demanding an unspecified ransom.

"The tourists are indeed alive, and negotiations are taking place to win their release," Mohammed Guerrout, chairman of parliament's Tourism Committee, said in a radio interview.

Earlier, Algerian Interior Minister Nourredine Yazid Zerhouni said security authorities have gathered evidence that the 31 tourists remain alive. More than 5,000 Algerian troops as well as a German commando unit have been searching for the tourists.

Zarhouni did not say what evidence Algeria had acquired to determine that the Westerners were still alive. He said a vehicle that belonged to German tourists was discovered on April 28 during a search of the southern Sahara desert.

In an interview on Saturday with Algerian state radio, Zerhouni did not dismiss the possibility that the tourists were captured by an Islamic insurgency group. Earlier, Western diplomatic sources said the assessment by Algiers and European Union authorities was that the Salafist Brigade for Combat and Call was holding the Westerners.

Zerhouni said the Westerners began a desert tour in the Sahara in February without local security or guides. The minister said Algerian authorities have launched a search for the missing.

On Friday, six Salafist combatants were killed in an Algerian military operation near Tebessa in eastern Algeria. The insurgents were killed in a search-and-destroy operation that began in January.

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