Freed Swiss hostages come home

The four Swiss were greeted by foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey (second from left), at Zurich airport Keystone

Four Swiss tourists held hostage in the Sahara desert for almost six months have arrived home.

This content was published on August 20, 2003 - 13:52

Swiss President Pascal Couchepin thanked the German, Malian and Algerian authorities for their role in freeing the hostages.

Sibylle Graf, Marc Hediger, Silja Stäheli and Reto Walther landed at Zurich airport just before 9am on Wednesday morning, where they were greeted by their families and the Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey.

They were among 14 European tourists released by kidnappers in the West African state of Mali on Monday afternoon.

Hediger told reporters that he wasn't mistreated by the kidnappers.

"But there were periods of tension and anxiety," he added. "We asked a lot of questions about our fate and wondered what was going through the heads of our kidnappers."

Hediger's father, Max, said he never gave up hope of his son's return.

"Right from the beginning, I never thought any other way," he said. "At first I thought it would be a matter of weeks. In the end it took months, but he still came back."

Markus Gurt, a Zurich police psychologist who accompanied the hostages during their flight home from Mali, said he was surprised by the "good condition" of the four Swiss.

“When you think about what they’ve experienced, they could have been in a much worse state,” he told swissinfo.

Intense negotiations

After a weekend of intense negotiations and hours of uncertainty the Swiss foreign ministry finally confirmed the release of the hostages late on Monday night.

The hostages were among 32 European tourists seized in late February and early March while travelling in southern Algeria.

The identity of the kidnappers is not clear, although Algerian authorities have linked them to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which has been involved in a decade-long uprising in the country.

Seventeen hostages were freed in May when Algerian commandos stormed a desert hideout, killing all the kidnappers.

German media reports said a ransom had been paid to free the 14 remaining hostages, although neither German officials nor Calmy-Rey would confirm the reports.

However, she said that Switzerland would pay a portion of the costs of the operation to liberate the hostages, but that it was unlikely the four Swiss would be asked to contribute.

"It was a kidnapping and the government is responsible for the safety of its citizens," Calmy-Rey said as she arrived at Zurich airport.

Some legal experts say the tourists should pay towards the costs of their liberation, as they went to Algeria at their own risk.

Risky travel

Couchepin warned Swiss tourists against venturing to dangerous parts of the world.

He advised people to check the risks of travelling to certain countries before setting off, for example, by consulting the travel advice on the foreign ministry's website.

The four Swiss went missing in Algeria in late February, after travelling into the Sahara desert without a guide.

In late July, it emerged that they - along with nine Germans and a Dutch national - had been taken to neighbouring Mali by their kidnappers.

One hostage - a 45-year-old German woman - died of heatstroke while in captivity and was buried by the kidnappers.

swissinfo with agencies

Hostages

February 22/23: Last contact with 11 tourists in southern Algeria – six German, four Swiss and one Dutch national.
March 17: A second and third group of tourists are reported missing.
March 30: A fourth group consisting of five Germans and one Swede is reported missing.
April 2: Four more German tourists disappear.
April 11: Two more Austrians go missing in the Sahara.
April 28: Clothing and other items belonging to the tourists are found.
May 4: Algeria confirms that the tourists are alive.
May 6: Authorities in Algeria deny negotiating the hostages’ release with the kidnappers.
May 7: Some 5,000 Algerian troops comb the Sahara in search of the missing tourists.
May 10: A Swiss foreign ministry official meets Algerian counterparts to press for more information.
May 13: 17 hostages – ten Austrians, six Germans and one Swede - are released.
August 18: The remaining 14 hostages are freed and head to the capital Bamako.
August 19-20: The tourists arrive in Bamako and are flown home.

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