Still plenty of places to hide
the 15 remaining hostages

The fate of the remaining 15 is unclear but German Interior Minister Otto Schily says there is “justifiable hope that the remaining tourists will soon be free”.

A Swiss Foreign Ministry spokesman, Simon Hubacher, said however “we do not know anything about what has happened to the four Swiss or their whereabouts at the moment”.

He added that he regretted other countries announcing publicly that their nationals had been found as “the lives of those still missing in Algeria could be endangered”.

Algeria’s al-Watan newspaper says the remaining tourists, 10 Germans, four Swiss and a Dutch national, are being held in the Tamelrik hills, 150 km north of Illizi and 1,900 km south of the capital Algiers.

The paper also names the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat as the likely kidnappers, though no official statement has been made.

Mystery

Reports of how the hostages were released conflict, though European governments have never publicly confirmed their citizens were kidnapped. Algerian tour operators even claimed that the Europeans had just gone missing after their satellite navigation systems failed.

Last week, however, Algerian radio quoted Tourism Minister Lakhdar Dorbani as saying that talks were underway with the hostage takers.

This was denied the following day by Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni, insisting that “there have been  no negotiations or contact with anybody”.

Fischer's visit achieved some
success, but still more to be done

Nevertheless, within 40 hours of German Foreign Minister Joscha Fischer arriving at Algiers on Monday, over half those missing for up to three months have been recovered – increasing unproven speculation that the kidnappers had wanted to deal directly with the German government.

Both the Austrian and German governments have refused to comment on the circumstances of their nationals’ release, with Schily adding “I cannot give any further details, in the interest of the tourists’ security”.

Violent rescue?

Fischer held talks with Algerian officials on Monday and reportedly warned against the use of force to secure the tourists’ release.

An unnamed Algerian military source said the tourists were released after negotiations with the hostage-takers, according to Reuters.

The same story was published by the Algerian daily, Liberte, adding that the tourists had actually been freed in Tamlirt on Tuesday, 150 km north of the town of Illizi near the border with Libya.

However, Al Watan reported that a dawn raid by Algerian army troops near the Sahara desert town of Tamanrasset resulted in the rescue. Nine of the toursists’ kidnappers were shot dead after putting up sustained resistance, the newspaper said.

Algeria’s Interior Ministry was not available for comment, but the area the tourists were heading, renowned for its ancient grave sites, has a reputation for arms and drug smuglling and borders Libya, Mali and Niger.