Monday, May 19, 2003

Mystery in the desert

The crisis over 32 European tourists being held hostage by Algerian terrorists affiliated with Al-Qaeda began with disappointment for the Europeans:

"...  the Algerian government said it was not negotiating with the kidnappers, prompting the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, to fly to the country to inquire personally about the fate of the group."

and ended in freedom for 17 hostages and triumph for the Algerians.

"The hostages were freed Tuesday in a gun battle that killed nine captors, Algerian newspapers reported. The clash lasted several hours, with soldiers trading gunfire with about 10 hostage-takers armed with assault rifles in the desert about 2,000 kilometres south of Algiers, the Arab-language daily El Watan reported, citing a security official.

The report said the army found two groups of captives, using reconnaissance planes equipped with thermal vision gear."

Unsurprisingly, this was bad news in Europe.

Die Welt wrote, "There is no reason for joy, because the fate of the other 15 hostages, including 10 Germans, is uncertain and the circumstances of the release remain unclear." The Swiss paper Tribune de Genève said the events "caused more consternation than relief." Many reports drew from the Algerian daily El Watan (via Reuters), which described a dramatic desert raid by the Algerian military that lasted several hours and saw nine militants gunned down.

But the Algerians then went after the remaining 15 European hostages:

"Special forces of the Algerian army have freed the remaining 15 hostages held by a shadowy Islamic group in the Algerian Sahara, several sources told Deutsche Presse-Agentur DPA on Monday.

The sources, primarily local tourist guides, said that people had been killed or injured in the pre-dawn operation, but they were not able to provide further details.

The Algerian army units had received the go-ahead on Sunday to liberate the hostages - ten Germans, four Swiss and one Dutch national - who were held in a rugged mountainous area about 150km northwest of the city of Illizi and 1 200km south of the capital Algiers."

Or was it all a sham? Radio France International reports that there was no rescue, no gunbattle, only ransom paid:

PARIS - The 17 European hostages liberated Tuesday in the Algerian Sahara from alleged Islamic terrorists came free after a ransom was paid, not as a result of an assault by the Algerian army, Radio France Internationale (RFI) reported Friday.

Citing "authorized Algerian and Swiss sources", RFI said that several millions of dollars in ransom was paid to free the hostages; 10 Austrians, six Germans and one Swedish national.

Algerian media and the Algerian army had declared that the hostages were freed after a pitched battle with at least 10 kidnappers armed with Kalashnikovs.