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German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer emerged from talks with top Algerian officials warning against the use of force in solving the mysterious affair of the 30 Europeans missing in the Sahara desert.
Although the fate of the travelers – some missing since February – remained unknown, Fischer’s remarks appeared to indicate hope that they might still be alive, possibly in the hands of kidnappers demanding ransom money.
The story of the missing tourists was first broken by WorldNetDaily’s premium online intelligence newsletter, Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin.
Some speculate the travelers got lost in the Sahara because their satellite navigation systems failed.
Others believe they were kidnapped by smugglers and drug runners or by a group linked to top terror suspect Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network.
The Swiss magazine Hebdo also reported the tourists alive, saying a ransom of between 20 million and 30 million euros had been demanded by an al-Qaida-linked group, the extremist Islamic group called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.
Fischer met President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Foreign Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem during his one-day visit.
Both sides were tight-lipped about the talks.
But Fischer stressed later his government did not want a “solution by force” to free the tourists, but one “based on reason.”
He declined to go any further, saying only: “To give additional details is not in the interests of the security of these people, and would be non-productive.”
But his words appeared to strengthen the hypothesis that the travelers might have been kidnapped by local bandits or an Islamic extremist group.
Fischer was reported to be accompanied by officers of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Agency, the BND, led by its director August Hanning.
If the latest report is confirmed, it will bring to 16 the number of Germans among the tourists who disappeared gradually in separate groups in the Sahara desert in southern Algeria.
And it would bring to 32 the overall figure, which also includes 10 Austrians, four Swiss, a Dutchman and a Swede.
The Fischer visit came amid dwindling hopes here of finding the travelers alive.
“It is important that we bring home our compatriots, safe and sound, as soon as possible,” he said on arrival.
“I would like to thank the Algerian authorities and government for efforts they have made in finding a solution to this problem.”
Fischer was scheduled to later travel on to neighboring Tunisia.
Algeria has deployed thousands of soldiers in search of the tourists, who were traveling in six groups without guides when they disappeared within a month in a desert covering 775,000 square miles in Algeria alone.
Fischer’s visit adds to mounting European pressure for Algeria to resolve the mystery.
The German news magazine Focus today quoted security sources as saying the alleged abductors had demanded direct negotiations with German officials, but that the demand had been rejected by the Algerian government.
“There is no German interference because this is about Algeria’s internal affairs,” it quoted Algerian Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni as saying.
It said Berlin was troubled by Algeria’s reluctance and particularly its decision not to use the German anti-terrorist GSG9 special unit trained to deal with hostage crises.
But a Swiss foreign ministry official said Monday that Algeria had reiterated it had not been in contact with possible kidnappers, and that Switzerland had no reason to doubt this.
“Algerian officials are sharing all they know with us,” said envoy Blaise Godet after a four-day trip to Algiers.
He dismissed reports of negotiations with possible kidnappers as speculation. “The Interior Ministry insisted that it was not in touch with and had not entered into negotiations with any party whatsoever,” Godet said.