- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Fourteen Europeans held hostage by Algerian militants in the Sahara Desert for six months arrived home yesterday morning from the Malian capital, Bamako, after their release.

They were welcomed with relief, but there also was criticism that the release cost millions of taxpayers money.

“We are a bit tired, but happy that we overcame all that,” said Witek Mitko upon arrival at the Cologne-Bonn airport in Germany.

They had been treated well by the kidnappers and had not starved, the former hostage said. “We had macaroni, rice, wheat and dirty water.”

The tourists, nine Germans, four Swiss and one Dutch, were among 32 seized in incidents in February and March in the Algerian part of the Sahara.

Seventeen hostages were freed in May.

The final batch was released Monday in a deal mediated by Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure and a local tribal leader.

“The kidnapping was kind of surreal. Two bearded men came with Kalashnikovs and said they wanted to drink tea with us,” Rainer Bracht, a former hostage, told the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

The hostages soon realized that the purpose of the kidnapping was money.

“The men wanted to buy weapons in Niger and thought they could get this money by kidnapping a few tourists,” Mr. Bracht said. He had counted up to 40 men who were guarding the hostages.

“The kidnappers shared everything with us. … But sometimes each person had only two liters of water per day. That was hard in the heat with 50 degrees Celsius [122 degrees Fahrenheit],” Mr. Bracht said.

One of the hostages died of heat stroke in late June.

“It is not easy to dig a grave at midnight in the middle of the desert,” Mr. Bracht said.

The hardest part of the ordeal, he said, was worrying about relatives back home.

He said he did not believe that the kidnappers would have killed him. “But changing our hiding place was always crucial. One of the pickup trucks of the kidnappers overturned various times,” he said.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said in Berlin that he hopes “the hostages can recover soon from their exertion and strains. … It is important to see that the kidnappers are terrorists. They must not get off scot-free.”

The government of Mali said it was not particularly interested in catching the kidnappers.

“From the time they handed over the hostages, we stopped thinking of [the kidnappers],” Tourism Minister Gaoussou Drabo said in Bamako. Asked whether he would give the kidnappers asylum, he said: “We never give such people asylum — they are no angels. But they did not ask for asylum.”

The exact terms of the release are not clear. Mr. Schroeder said no ransom had been paid.

But Wolfgang Bosbach, a member of parliament for the opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU), said he is sure that the German government had paid.

German and Malian press reports said $5 million had been paid for the release — one-tenth of what the kidnappers had demanded.

German officials praised the work of the Algerian and Malian governments, and officials spoke of future aid and cooperation in the war on terrorism. Germany is a major contributor of aid to Mali.

Some analysts speculated that Mali had paid the ransom and would be paid back by the Germans through an increase in development aid.

Mr. Schroeder and Mr. Bosbach urged adventure tourists to be more careful.

“People cannot only book flights to dangerous countries like Algeria or Yemen and think the government will rescue them and pay. In doing this, these people finance terrorism,” Mr. Bosbach said.

He said tourists who do not heed travel warnings from the German Foreign Ministry and get kidnapped should reimburse the government for some rescue expenses.

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