Fourteen European hostages kidnapped by Algerian militants in the Sahara and held in Mali have been freed, according to Mali’s presidential spokesman.
“We confirm officially that they have been released, all the hostages,” Seydou Sissouma told the Reuters news agency in the capital, Bamako.
Malian mediator Iyad Ag Ghali also told Agence France-Presse the Europeans were “totally free.”
The nine Germans, four Swiss and one Dutchman were among 32 tourists abducted while trekking across the Sahara Desert by an al-Qaida-linked Islamic terrorist group.
WorldNetDaily reported in May that Algerian army commandos rescued the other 17 tourists following a four-hour gun battle in which nine of the kidnappers, who fired on the soldiers with Kalashnikovs, were killed.
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.
Over the months the 32 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. Algeria subsequently deployed thousands of soldiers to comb 775,000 square-miles of the desert.
Following the rescue operation, the remaining 14 hostages were moved to Mali. The BBC reports the kidnappers kept them on the move from one remote hideout to another in the desert, while intense negotiations were conducted to secure their release.
“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 in May. “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.”
Germany’s ZDF television reports a Malian negotiator had given ransom money paid by the German government to the hostage-takers, who had demanded $5 million for each of the 14 held captive.
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.
Earlier this year, 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.