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Algeria negotiating release of missing tourists

Two of the missing Swiss - Silja Stäheli (left) and Sybille Graf

(Keystone Archive)

The Algerian government says it has started negotiations with the kidnappers of 31 European tourists - including four Swiss - held for the past two months in the Sahara desert.

The statement came shortly before an Algerian radio station announced that the holidaymakers would be released soon.

The Swiss foreign ministry said it could not confirm whether the release of the tourists was imminent.

"We cannot confirm this information either because we do not have the information or because the well-being of the people dictates our communication in that area," spokesperson Daniela Stoffel told swissinfo.

Stoffel added there was reason to hope that the hostages were still alive.

Algeria claims the missing travellers are still alive and are believed to be near Illizi, 1,200 kilometres southeast of the capital Algiers.

The four Swiss disappeared in February after setting off into the desert without a guide. Fifteen Germans, ten Austrians, a Swede and a Dutchman are also missing.

"Contacts are underway to liberate the tourists," Mohamed Karout, president of the Algerian parliament's tourism commission, said on Sunday.

His comments are the first confirmation by the Algerian authorities that officials are in contact with the kidnappers.

Tourism minister Lakhdar Dorbani added that "the tourists are doing very well", contradicting fears that the captives are in poor health because of the scorching 45-degree heat and difficult conditions in the desert.

Appeal

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey and the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, have both issued written appeals to the Algerian government to do everything in its power to protect the hostages.

The "SonntagsBlick" newspaper reported that Calmy-Rey is in regular contact with the authorities in Algiers and gets daily updates on the crisis.

In her letter, Calmy-Rey asked the Algerians "not to endanger the lives of the tourists" in any way.

Algeria has dispatched thousands of soldiers and military aircraft to the desert to look for the tourists.

Switzerland, Germany and Austria have sent officials to the region to assist in the search. All three countries have also sent special investigators to help with intelligence efforts.

Bin Laden

The Algerian media have speculated that a fundamentalist Islamic group with links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network may be responsible for the kidnappings.

The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, a militant Islamic group that has been waging a civil war against the Algerian government, is known to operate in the area where the tourists vanished.

The Algerian daily, "El Watan", has cited local sources as saying that the 31 hostages are being held in separate groups in a highly inaccessible, rocky area of the Saharan desert.

It said the region is only accessible by camel and is a popular hideout for drug and arms smugglers doing business across the little-controlled borders with Niger and Libya.

Clothing and inscriptions left behind by the prisoners were found last week by Algerian search parties.

swissinfo with agencies

Algeria

There has been no news of the Swiss tourists since February 20 when they made their last telephone call.

The identity of the kidnappers, their demands and their motives have not been released by the Algerian authorities.

There has been much speculation that the 31 European tourists are being held by a militant group linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

European governments have been anxious not to endanger the lives of their citizens and have been pressing for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

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