Thu, Aug 21, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Sahara hostages fly home

REUTERS , COLOGNE, GERMANY

Accompanied by Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, second left, released hostages Reto Walther, left, Marc Hediger, center, Sybille Graf, second right, and Silja Staeheli, right, wave to relatives after their arrival in Zurich, Switzerland, yesterday.

PHOTO: AP

Fourteen Europeans held hostage in the Sahara by Algerian militants for over five months arrived in Germany yesterday after being freed in the West African country of Mali.

A German air-force jet carrying the hostages landed at the military section of Cologne airport just before 7:30am in western Germany after a six-hour flight from Mali's capital Bamako.

"I can tell you that my impression of the state of their health is exceptionally good and they are in very good mental condition, but they will need time to deal with this," said Juergen Chrobog, Germany's top official handling the case.

The exact terms of their release to Malian authorities on Monday remain unclear and Germany has not commented on reports that a ransom was paid. Mali's president thanked Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi for helping, but did not say how.

The nine Germans, four Swiss and one Dutch tourist were among 32 seized in separate incidents in February and March while traveling in southern Algeria, famous for its grave sites but notorious for smuggling and banditry.

Several wore blue tracksuits and smiled and waved to the media as they arrived, but made no comment to reporters as they boarded buses that drove them to an undisclosed location to be reunited with their families.

One hostage, Michaela Spitzer, died of heatstroke in the Sahara.

"I am happy that 14 of the 15 hostages have arrived back safely," said Chrobog, who flew to Germany with the hostages. "We mourn the death of Frau Spitzer who didn't survive this expedition."

The group was moved to Mali last month after Algerian commandos rescued 17 hostages in May. Algeria said the hostages had been seized by the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, who are fighting for a purist Islamist state.

The kidnappers kept their captives on the move, hiding among rocks and dunes of the vast Sahara in temperatures that regularly topped 45 degrees centigrade.

Malian officials said last week that kidnappers had demanded a ransom, but their impoverished country could not pay it.

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