- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2003

BERLIN — Germany is poised to send its crack antiterrorist GSG9 police unit to Algeria to help free 31 European tourists thought to have been kidnapped after they vanished in the Sahara this year. European governments are frustrated at the lack of progress made by Algeria in finding the tourists — 15 Germans, 10 Austrians, four Swiss, a Dutchman and a Swede — who had been traveling in several groups when they disappeared.There has been no official word on their whereabouts or of any ransom demand from their kidnappers — believed to be members of the Salafist Organization for Prayer and Combat (GSPC), a militant Islamic group with links to al Qaeda. There have, however, been several unconfirmed sightings of the tourists.The GSG9 is expected to play a leading role in the search. Germany, Austria and Switzerland have already sent 11 specialist police to assist the Algerians, but the officers have been confined to Algiers and reportedly are becoming exasperated.They were refused permission to examine vehicles found abandoned in the desert by the Algerians. “We have to wait until they tell us something,” said one European officer.Algerian authorities said for the first time on Sunday that they had been “in talks” for weeks to secure the release of the tourists. Though the statement by Tourism Minister Lakhdar Dorbani did not say to whom officials were talking, it implicitly confirmed for the first time that the tourists had been kidnapped.Until then, the Algerian authorities had officially maintained that the groups of tourists, who had been traveling through the desert in vans and four-wheel-drive vehicles and on motorcycles, may have just gotten lost in the sand dunes.A number of signs of life have been reported, including pieces of clothing and a scratched message on a rock saying, “We are still alive,” but none of this has been officially confirmed.If GSG9 gets the go-ahead, it would be only the second time it has been deployed abroad. In 1977, after a shootout at Mogadishu airport, the German squad freed 87 hostages from an airliner seized by Arab hijackers supporting Germany’s Red Army Faction.Officials in Berlin confirmed last week that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has talked to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria to discuss ways to resolve the crisis.Although the German government has refused to confirm that it is considering armed intervention to free the hostages, a German army “flying hospital” aircraft is said to be on standby, ready to be sent to Algeria.The tourists began to disappear in a remote region of southeastern Algeria in early February. A first group of four German-speaking Swiss overland trekkers vanished near the Libyan border, to be followed by a party of 11 German motorcyclists.Four other parties in vehicles also went missing in the region during March. The last persons to disappear were two Austrians who failed to turn up for their ferry home from Tunis on April 11.For two months, more than 12,000 Algerian army and police personnel equipped with helicopters and heat-seeking devices have been combing a mountainous region near the desert town of Illizi, almost 800 miles southeast of Algiers and marked by deep canyons and numerous caves.According to some reports from Algiers, the army has surrounded an area in which it believes the tourists are being held but has held back from a raid because of worries expressed by European governments.

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