BERLIN – An Austrian man freed from captivity in Algeria described an exhausting ordeal in which he and other kidnapped tourists were moved constantly around the desert by Islamic extremists demanding ransom.
Seventeen Europeans — 10 Austrians, six Germans and a Swede — were flown home and reunited with relatives Wednesday evening after Algerian commandos reportedly raided a hideout of the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (search), an Islamic group linked to Al Qaeda.
Their homecoming was overshadowed by mounting concern over the fate of the 15 remaining hostages, 10 of them Germans, one Dutch and four from Switzerland. German officials refused to comment on the situation Thursday.
The 32 Westerners, traveling in seven groups, began disappearing in late February from the arid region of rocky plains, canyons and mountains near the Libyan border. All were traveling without guides along a 320-mile highway frequented by tourists.
No one claimed responsibility for kidnapping them, giving rise to a range of speculation.
In an interview with Germany's RTL (search) television, a freed Austrian hostage described the kidnappers as "pure Islamic terrorists."
"They prayed every day and told us they wanted to install an Islamic state in Algeria and overthrow the government," said Gerhard Wintersteller, 63. But, he added, "they wanted ransom money — no political demands, as far as I know. They wanted money to get weapons."
Algerian authorities blamed the Salafist group, known by its French-language acronym GSPC. The group is one of two main insurgency movements that have continued their fight to topple Algeria's military-backed government and install an Islamic state.
Wintersteller recalled that his group, traveling in four cars, was kidnapped as they stopped to talk to a carload of German tourists coming from the opposite direction.
"The shock was enormous because, as we stopped, eight terrorists jumped out and held their Kalashnikovs in front of us," he said. "We had to throw ourselves on the ground. They ripped the car keys out of our hands."
Citing fears for the safety of the remaining hostages, he refused to comment on how they were treated by the kidnappers or on the circumstances in which they were freed.
But he said that from the moment of the arrest, they moved around constantly, traveling at night without lights.
The group was taken to a wadi, or dried river valley, and held for four or five days, before being moved to a similar hiding place, Wintersteller said.
"Then the intervals became shorter and shorter. They could feel that the military was on their trail," he said. "At that stage we were fleeing every night, had to walk at night. Our shoes were shredded and we were at the end of our physical strength."
"When they said at around two or three in the morning, 'this is where we're camping,' we just fell down and spent the last hours of the night like that," he added.
Arriving at Cologne's airport late Wednesday, some of the German hostages leaned heavily on the rail as they got off the plane.
Axel Mantey, 30, was the first to emerge, sporting a beard and wearing Arab dress. He was followed by his girlfriend, Melanie Simon, 25, in a bright pink robe, carrying a bouquet of flowers; while the Swede, Harald Ickler, 52, who lives in Bavaria, punched both arms in the air and gave a double victory sign.
Wintersteller was later flown to Salzburg, Austria, along with the other freed Austrians.
German officials had been pressuring Algeria to resolve the mysterious disappearances, but Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer (search) acknowledged only Tuesday that the tourists had been kidnapped, speaking in Tunisia a day after meeting President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (search) in Algiers.
Commandos freed the 17 in a dawn raid Tuesday, engaging in a pitched battle lasting several hours that left nine suspected hostage-takers dead at their hideaway about 1,200 miles south of the capital, Algiers, the daily El Watan reported.
The report said the army located the captives, held in two groups, using reconnaissance planes equipped with thermal vision gear.
Meanwhile, relatives of those still held continued their vigil.
"What is positive for their families makes things even worse for the other hostages," said Andreas Mitko of Augsburg, whose father, Witek, has been missing since March 8.
"If it was really was a military raid, then the other kidnappers could take revenge on the remaining hostages — my father, for example," he said.