Algerian military denies reports that kidnapped Europeans have been freed

There were conflicting reports yesterday about the fate of the remaining group of 15 Europeans held hostage in the Sahara by al-Qa'ida-linked terrorists.

Algerian military sources initially said the 15, including 10 Germans, four Swiss and a Dutchman, had been freed from a "fortress-like" hideaway in the rugged Talmerik mountains near the Saharan town of Illizi at dawn yesterday and had been flown by helicopter to the capital, Algiers.

But the German government was not able to confirm the reports. Later in the day the Algerian armed forces denied the tourists, who disappeared two months ago, had been freed. "All efforts continue to be undertaken by the armed forces and the security forces to liberate them," state radio said.

Last Tuesday, a different party of 17 kidnapped tourists were rescued during a desert gun battle with their captors.

Yesterday, some of the Austrians who were freed last week told how they were treated humanely by the rebels, who deny links to al-Qa'ida and who never put their lives in danger.

"They said that Osama bin Laden was an idol for them, but that theirs was a separate group in Algeria," said 25-year-old Andreas Bleckmann, a former hostage.

"We almost became friends," said Mr Bleckmann's father, Ingo, 60, who was held for 52 days. "We would also like to thank our kidnappers for the humane way they treated us," Ingo said after thankingthe Algerian and Austrian governments. "They weren't brutal terrorists," he added.

Ingo Bleckmann said the captors told him they wanted to make the world realise that Islamic fundamentalists had won democratic elections in 1992 by a large majority but were prevented from taking power by the military.

All 32 tourists were kidnapped in the southern Sahara between mid February and the end of March by the Islamic militant, Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which is linked to al-Qa'ida. It is reported to have demanded a ransom of several million dollars for their release.

Algerian reports havenamed the leader of the GSPC group that kidnapped the tourists as Abderrassak el-Para, a former parachute soldier who deserted from the Algerian army. These GSPC activists have been fighting a civil war with the Algerian army since 1998.

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