Hostage dies in Sahara as rebels move camp to Mali

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A German tourist who was part of a tour group being held hostage in Algeria has died after more than five months in captivity in the Sahara desert.

Süddeutsche Zeitung, the German broadsheet newspaper, named the dead hostage as Michaela Spitzer, a 45-year-old divorcee, from Augsburg in Bavaria. It said Ms Spitzer, who has two children, died from heatstroke after suffering days in 50C temperatures.

Her former husband, Karlheinz Spitzer, said German police had informed him of the death of his former wife. The German government has refused to confirm the information.

ARD, the German broadcaster, said Ms Spitzer's kidnappers buried her body in the desert where she and 14 others were being held. The whereabouts of the remaining captives - nine Germans, four Swiss and a Dutchman - is unknown.

The German government has come under fire from the media for withholding information about the missing tourists. A spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry said: "This is about people's lives. The government is doing all it can to help those involved in this difficult situation."

Recent media reports suggest the group has moved to neighbouring Mali, a former French colony south-west of Algeria. According to El Watan, an Algerian newspaper, the 25 kidnappers accepted an offer of safe passage to Mali in return for the release of the hostages.

L'Independant, a Malian daily newspaper, said the kidnappers had sent a videotape to Malian authorities showing that the hostages are in the country. The paper said the tape was sent on Monday to top Malian government officials, including President Amadou Toumani Toure.

Ms Spitzer was one of 31 European tourists who went missing in the Algerian Sahara desert in separate kidnapping incidents in late February and early March. The groups of Swiss, Dutch, Austrian and German tourists had been travelling without guides and on motorcycles. They are thought to have been kidnapped by an Islamic rebel group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). The Algerian government says the GSPC has links to al-Qa'ida.

The GSPC, which wants to create an Islamic state in Algeria, is led by Hassan Hattab, a political activist and opposition leader in Algeria.

The first group of 17 tourists was released in mid-May, after Algerian troops stormed the hideout where they were held. The kidnappers were killed in the gun battle. On their return to Germany, the former hostages told of their ordeal, which began when a van with German number plates drove up beside the group.

Gerhard Wintersteller, an Austrian, said: "As I stood by the car, eight terrorists suddenly jumped out, held Kaslishnikovs in front of our noses and threw us to the ground ... it was a real hostage taking."

Until the reports of Ms Spitzer's death, there had been little news of the remaining captives. The Mali government refused to comment on claims that the hostages were in the country. "We are not denying or confirming anything," a senior Mali official said recently. "We all want to get the hostages freed, all the work the state is doing is aimed at preserving the lives of the hostages."

About a dozen German and Dutch experts have joined Swiss police and locals who are working in Mali to secure the tourists' release. German security officials told ARD that the kidnapping had now entered a "dynamic" phase.