Troops ready to storm kidnappers' hideout

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The Independent Online

Algerian commandos were ready to storm a desert hideout of a group of Islamic militants believed to be holding 15 European tourists last night, as negotiations continued for their release.

Algeria's daily El Khabar newspaper quoted military sources as saying the armed forces were on stand-by to attack caves in the Sahara if the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat ­ a group loosely linked to al-Qa'ida ­ turned down a choice of unhindered passage out of Algeria or amnesty in return for the hostages' release. The government did not comment on the report.

Last Thursday, 17 of a total of 32 European tourists who went missing in the Sahara in February and March were released. The tourists were reportedly kidnapped by the Salafist group.

On Saturday, one of the freed hostages, Harald Ickler, said the captors called themselves mujahedin ­ a term for Islamic fighters ­ while insisting they were a "completely independent group".

He said the kidnappers shot and wounded a female hostage during an escape attempt at the start of the ordeal. Mr Ickler was captured on 21 March when their three-car convoy was ambushed by terrorists wielding assault rifles. When the lead car tried to drive off, the kidnappers fired at the tyres, but a bullet also hit one of the passengers, Michaela Joubert in the back, Mr Ickler said.

After the driver, Andreas Kiehlechner, surrendered, one of the kidnappers attended to Ms Joubert's wound. "They were very apologetic, but they said she shouldn't have tried to flee," Mr Ickler said.

Weeks of hardship followed as the kidnappers forced the hostages on long desert marches to evade the Algerian army.

The militants are suspected of holding the remaining tourists in caves near the city of Illizi, 750 miles south of the capital, Algiers.

The 32 disappeared while travelling in different groups without guides in off-road vehicles in southern Algeria. They were believed to have been heading for an area rich in archaeological sites, where bandits are known to operate.

Algeria's influential El Watan newspaper quoted security sources as saying the kidnappings had been planned for more than a year. In the storming of the first camp on Tuesday, seven rebels and a soldier were killed and some remaining rebels were captured after escaping into the hills of Tamanrasset province, the paper said.

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