Libya claims lead role in negotiations that freed Sahara hostages

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The Independent Online

Libya claimed to have played a key role in securing Monday's release of 14 European tourists kidnapped in the Sahara six months ago. The nine Germans, four Swiss and a Dutchman were on their way to Germany yesterday after being freed from Islamic extremists in the west African state of Mali.

The German and Mali governments said they had conducted negotiations to secure the hostages' release. The 14 were flown to Cologne from Bamako, the Mali capital.

Family members and friends were waiting for them at the Cologne-Bonn military airport. A Swiss military plane waited at the airport to take the Swiss tourists to Zurich for reunions there.

In a statement released yesterday in Berlin, the Libyan Muammar Gaddafi Foundation claimed it had negotiated between the two sides and had managed to reduce a ransom paid to the kidnappers.

The foundation said that, with the approval of the Mali government, Libyans had made the initial contact with the al-Qa'ida-linked Islamic Salafist Group for Call and Combat, which kidnapped the tourists in the southern Algerian Sahara in February.

"The kidnappers made their demands to the foundation on 7 August and we passed these on to the governments concerned," the statement said.

The German government refused to comment on the Libyan foundation's claim and would not confirm that a ransom had been paid.

But German media reports said the ransom of €4.6m (£3.2m)had been paid by the Mali government. The reports said Germany had agreed to refund Mali by supplying the impoverished country with aid.

The Gaddafi Foundation, which is run by the Libyan leader's son, Seif al-Islam, is part of Libya's drive to regain international acceptance.

Michaela Spitzer, one of the German hostages, died from heat exhaustion last month when the kidnappers moved the hostages to Mali. In May, 17 other tourists who had been kidnapped with them were freed after a gun battle in Algeria.