Algerian army commandos rescued 17 European tourists abducted while trekking across the Sahara Desert by an al-Qaida-linked Islamic terrorist group, but authorities fear for the fate of 15 others still captive.

As first reported by by WorldNetDaily’s premium online intelligence newsletter, Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin, six separate groups of adventure tourists – 16 Germans, 10 Austrians, four Swiss, a Dutchman and a Swede – vanished along with their all-terrain vehicles and motorbikes between mid-February and March. They were believed taken captive by a bandit chieftain, Mokhtar Belmokhtar – described as part Robin Hood and part Osama bin Laden.

In recent months, Belmokhtar declared himself the regional leader of an extreme Islamist organization, the “Salafist Group for Combat and Prayer” – the same group believed to be involved in a plot to use the nerve gas sarin on the London underground. Known by the French-language acronym GSPC, the group is regarded by French intelligence services as one of the satellites of the al-Qaida network and is on the State Department’s list of terror organizations. GSPC is one of two extremist groups that seeks to install an Islamic state in Algeria.

Algeria had deployed thousands of soldiers to comb 775,000 square-miles of the desert. The only signs of life from the missing tourists were an aborted mobile phone call from a Swiss trekker and a message, written in German, found in the desert, which said: “We are still alive.”

The rescued hostages – 10 Austrians, six Germans and a Swede – were found yesterday in a hideout of the GSPC, near the Sahara’s largest city of Tamanrasset and 1,200 miles south of Algiers, the Algerian army said in a statement released today.

“After a brief assault against the terrorists, during which precautions were taken to safeguard the lives of the hostages, all of the tourists, who numbered 17 … were freed, safe and sound,” said the statement.

Algerian newspapers report the gun battle lasted several hours. The Arab-language daily El Watan reported nine of the kidnappers, who fired on the soldiers with Kalashnikovs, were killed in the dawn raid.

The freed hostages were taken to an army hospital in Algiers to undergo health evaluations and were reported to be in good condition.

“I cannot bring myself to believe it,” Peter Galler, whose brother is one of the Austrians released, told Agence France-Presse. “I did not think I would ever again see my brother.”

Algerian newspapers report the remaining hostages – 10 Germans, four Swiss and one Dutch – are being held in a mountainous region near the border with Libya.

“The government is very concerned about the fate of the hostages who are still in the hands of their captors,” German government spokesman Thomas Steg told reporters. “We expect everything will be done so that the lives of the European hostages still detained in the Algerian Sahara will not be endangered.”

German Interior Minister Otto Schily called the situation “precarious” on German television but said there was “justifiable hope that the remaining tourists will soon be free.”

The Associated Press reports Austrian President Thomas Klestil sent a telegram of thanks to his Algerian counterpart, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, adding he was impressed by the “prudent way” in which Algerian authorities freed the hostages.

Over the months that the trekkers were missing, the Algerian government operated a virtual news blackout, saying any publicity about alleged hostage-takers may cause them to panic and kill the captives.

The trekkers were traveling without guides and navigating by Global Positioning Systems, which establish a precise position on the Earth’s surface by satellite. Algerian newspapers, quoting government officials, speculated the tourists had gotten lost because the United States had scrambled GPS systems to confuse the Iraqis before the start of the war.

The German, Austrian and Swiss governments refused to accept the explanation and sent teams of anti-terrorist police and secret service agents to watch over the search.

WorldNetDaily reported Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer visited Algeria Monday and held talks with Bouteflika and other top Algerian officials, stepping up the pressure on Algeria to resolve the crisis.

Fischer, who was reported to be accompanied by officers of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Agency, the BND, stressed his government did not want a “solution by force” to free the tourists, but one “based on reason.”

The German news magazine Focus yesterday 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.

But the Algerian Interior Ministry insisted it was not in touch with and had not entered into negotiations with any party.

Belmokhtar – also known as Belaouer (“the one-eyed”) – operates in a vast desert in southeast Algeria. Although an Islamist volunteer in Afghanistan in his teens, he was for many years regarded as a “romantic” outlaw who robbed but never killed his victims and sometimes helped the poor. In recent months, he is believed to have formed an alliance with an extreme Islamist organization that has links with al-Qaida.

For a decade since his return from Afghanistan, Belmokhtar has been involved in drug-smuggling, gun-running and highway robbery in the southeastern corner of Algeria, 1,000 miles from the capital, Algiers. Three years ago, the annual Paris-Dakar car rally was diverted after Belmokhtar threatened to attack the competitors.

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