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Freed Western Hostages Arrive in Europe From Algeria

Planes carrying 17 European hostages freed when Algerian commandos raided the hideout of an Islamic group linked to Al Qaeda (search) arrived in Europe on Thursday, homecomings made bittersweet by concern for the remaining 15 tourists still held in the Sahara Desert (search).

Six Germans and one Swede were transported to Cologne (search) on a military plane accompanied by Deputy Foreign Minister Juergen Chrobog, as well as a doctor and psychologist. A plane carrying 10 Austrians also freed in the raid landed in Salzburg (search).

Some of the hostages leaned heavily on the rail as they got off the plane in Cologne. Axel Mantay, 30, was the first to emerge, sporting a beard and wearing Arab dress. He was followed by his girlfriend Melanie Simon, 25.

The Swede, Harald Ickler, 52, punched both arms in the air and gave a double victory sign as he descended the stairs.

All seven -- five men and two women -- boarded a bus on the tarmac.

In Austria minutes later, the plane carrying the Austrians touched down in Salzburg. Prior to the Austrians' arrival, Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Weiss described them as "very tired and exhausted" but without any outward injuries despite their 2-month ordeal in the Sahara.

While refusing to go into details of the hostages' release, Chrobog praised Algeria's handling of the crisis.

"They have done great," Chrogob said, adding: "We are greatly concerned about the second group of hostages."

The hostages were freed Tuesday in a gun battle that killed nine captors, Algerian newspapers reported. The clash lasted several hours, with army units trading gunfire with about 10 hostage-takers armed with assault rifles in the desert about 1,200 miles south of Algiers, the Arab-language daily El Watan reported, citing a security official it did not identify.

The report said the Army found two groups of captives, using reconnaissance planes equipped with thermal vision gear.

The 17 were in a group freed early Tuesday, El Watan said. The military planned another operation to rescue the second group, believed to be in a location several hundred miles away in the desert mountains, the paper reported. It was unclear whether the second operation had taken place.

The army said the Salafist Group for Call and Combat was responsible for kidnapping the travelers, the official news agency APS reported Wednesday. The group is on the U.S. State Department's list of terror organizations.

Algerian news reports have said three Saudi envoys of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden met with a top leader of the Salafist Group in December. The Algerian group, known by the French-language acronym GSPC, is one of two main insurgency movements still fighting to topple Algeria's military-backed government and install an Islamic state.

Officials refused to comment on the circumstances of the release, citing concerns about the safety of the remaining 15 hostages -- 10 Germans, four Swiss and one Dutch.

"We remain highly concerned about those still in the hands of the hostage-takers," German government spokesman Thomas Steg said. "We are concentrating our efforts on them."

German Interior Minister Otto Schily said "there is hope" the remaining hostages "will be free soon."

Austrian President Thomas Klestil sent a telegram of thanks to his Algerian counterpart, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, adding he was impressed by the "prudent way" in which Algerian authorities freed the hostages.

The tourists began disappearing 2 months ago after setting off in seven separate groups in four-wheel-drive vehicles or on motorcycles, and were last seen near Libya.

No group has publicly claimed responsibility for the kidnappings, opening speculation that the seizures could be in retaliation for the conviction in a Frankfurt court of four Algerians for plotting a failed terror attack on a French Christmas market in 2000.

Other theories blamed Islamic rebels battling Algeria's military-backed government for more than a decade, or possibly smugglers active in the area.