Salafist terror group releases European tourists

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

CAIRO An terrorist group with ties to Al Qaida and Islamic extremists has released 14 Western European hostages, ending a six-month ordeal in Algeria's Western Sahara.

Western diplomatic sources said a group of Dutch, German and Swiss nationals was released by the Salafist Brigade for Combat and Call on Tuesday. The sources said the 14 Europeans were abducted in Western Sahara and taken to Mali earlier this month.

The Salafists released the hostages after they received at least $5 million in ransom. The sources said at least two of the EU governments paid the ransom in a move that was opposed by Algeria.

The Europeans were flown from Mali to Germany on Wednesday, Middle East Newsline reported. Germany pledged to cooperate with Algeria to find the Salafist captors.

"It seems important to me that the kidnappers don't escape unpunished," German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said in a statement. "That is why German security authorities will support the Algerian and Malian partners in everything that could help seize the kidnappers and put them on trial."

Both German and Swiss officials refused to confirm or deny reports that Berlin and other European goverments paid a ransom for the release of the hostages. The Netherlands has denied that it paid a ransom.

"We should refrain from all critical questions that one could ask in this case," German Deputy Foreign Minister Juergen Chrobog said. "I think for now we should be happy that the affair ended as it did. It could have turned out much worse."

In May, Algerian security forces freed 17 European hostages in a raid of a Salafist stronghold in the Western Sahara. The remaining hostages had been held in a separate location. In June, a German national died of a stroke and was buried by Salafist insurgents.

On Tuesday, Algerian sources reported additional Islamic insurgency attacks. The sources said four members of a family were killed in a bomb blast in the southern Algerian state of Djelfa, a stronghold of the Salafist movement.

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