Sahara tunnels could solve mystery of missing tourists

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The Independent Online

Desert nomads were reported yesterday to have discovered an abandoned vehicle and a network of tunnels in a remote region of southern Algeria thought likely to provide clues about the mysterious disappearance of 29 western tourists in the Sahara over the past seven weeks.

Desert nomads were reported yesterday to have discovered an abandoned vehicle and a network of tunnels in a remote region of southern Algeria thought likely to provide clues about the mysterious disappearance of 29 western tourists in the Sahara over the past seven weeks.

Germany's ARD television channel said the off-road vehicle was found in a mountainous district north of the Algerian town of Tamanrasset at the weekend by a camel train of nomads passing through the region. The vehicle was left parked outside the entrance to a complex system of underground caves linked by tunnels. The nomads said they suspected the caves "were inhabited", although they had not entered the system to find out.

The nomads' find appeared to be the first clue so far in an increasingly desperate search for the missing tourists, whose number increased to 29 last week after Austria announced that eight of its citizens had disappeared in the region. Sixteen Germans, four Swiss and a Dutchman have gone missing in the Algerian Sahara since the beginning of March.

On Sunday, a team of five investigators from Germany's Federal Criminal Bureau were dispatched to Algiers to join Algerian and other German police in the hunt for the missing tourists. All 29 were in three groups that were exploring the region independently in off-road vehicles.

The last evidence of their whereabouts is a photograph taken by a friend of the missing tourists that shows six of the explorers with a car and three motorcycles while taking a break on a pass in the Algerian mountains on 21 February. Two days later, the first group disappeared. German and Algerian investigators suspect the tourists may have been taken hostage by a militant Islamist group, known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), which has links to al-Qa'ida. The GSPC is fighting the Algerian authorities and has been active in the central Sahara for years.

However, no ransom demand has so far been made. "We cannot rule out any possibility; there have been no demands," said a German Federal Criminal Bureau spokesman. He said the search had been widened to include the use of helicopters equipped with heat-seeking cameras.

German tour operators had recently insisted that Algeria's southern Sahara rated as a relatively problem-free area. However, Germany's Sahara Club, which organises trips to the region, strongly criticised the German Foreign Ministry yesterday for failing to do enough to warn tourists of the dangers. "The warnings have been inadequate. The Foreign Ministry and the Algerian authorities are overstretched. They cannot be counted on to help," it said in a statement.

The club claimed it had warned the German authorities about the dangers of the region some three weeks ago but had been ignored. It said it suspected the tourists had been captured by a "well-organised group" that had extensive contacts beyond Algeria's borders.

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