Freed Sahara Tourists On Way Home

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Fourteen European tourists held hostage for six months were leaving the Sahara Desert on Tuesday after international negotiations won their release from an Islamic extremist group in Algeria.

The 14 — nine Germans, four Swiss and a Dutchman — were driven from Tissalit (search), near the Algerian border, to the northern Mali desert city of Gao (search) after a Malian government plane was grounded.

Mali helped mediate the release of the hostages, who were seized in Algeria.

When the group arrives, German military planes, one equipped with a hospital, will fly them to Mali's capital, Bamako (search). The group then will leave for Germany late Tuesday or early Wednesday.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder welcomed the release as a victory against international terrorism and said the perpetrators "should not be allowed to escape unpunished."

Schroeder thanked Algeria and Mali for their help during the hostage crisis. The tourists were captured in Algeria, then taken across the border to Mali, whose government worked largely behind the scenes to win their freedom.

Schroeder said he and the two countries' presidents agreed "that the fight against international terrorism requires close and trusting cooperation between the respective authorities."

"I am happy that this worked in an exemplary way in this case," Schroeder said in a statement.

The hostages included tourists as young as 19 — both women. The Europeans set out last winter on desert safaris in Algeria, scene of more than a decade-long Islamic insurgency that frequently has targeted civilians.

"My wish for the captives is that they can now return quickly to their home countries and can recover as soon as possible from the hardship and stress, in the midst of their families, relatives and friends," Schroeder said.

In Europe, some hostages' families were seen leaving their houses Monday under police escort, traveling with backpacks and other luggage for reunions with their loved ones.

News of the release came late Monday, after a day that started out with talk of imminent breakthroughs dragged on. Finally, Seydou Sissouma, spokesman for Mali president Amadou Toumani Toure (search), announced shortly after dark that the 14 were in the hands of Mali authorities.

Sissouma refused to give any details on the freed hostages' conditions or any other information, including whether the hostages were transferred through intermediaries.

Asked about media reports that a ransom was paid, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said Monday it was German policy not to make such payments. He refused to elaborate.

German media reported several weeks ago that kidnappers demanded $5.1 million per hostage.

A German newspaper reported Tuesday that Libya claimed it helped win the hostages' release. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's son, Seif el-Islam Gadhafi, said the charitable foundation he heads used "its political contacts to the kidnappers" but paid no ransom, the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel reported.

Fischer had no comment.

The hostages were expected to be reunited with their families in Cologne, Germany.

In Germany's southern state of Bavaria, Christiane Hainz said her family learned from television reports Monday night that her brother-in-law, Martin Hainz, was coming home.

"We were overjoyed," she said.

Andreas Mitko said he felt a "huge relief" when he learned that his father, Witek, was freed.

"If he wants to have peace and quiet, he can have peace and quiet," said Andreas Mitko, who runs a business in southern Augsburg. "If he wants to celebrate, we will celebrate."

In Switzerland, news reached one hostage's family through a call from the Swiss Foreign Ministry.

"This is absolutely fantastic," Verena Hediger, wife of Swiss travel guide Marc Hediger, told The Associated Press by telephone.

Hediger later told Swiss radio she always believed her husband would come home.

"There were few moments when I felt that something had really happened to him," she said.

Algerian authorities say the kidnappers are linked to the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (search), generally seen as the less bloody of two key Islamic extremist movements in Algeria.

The Salafist group has been linked to the Al Qaeda terror organization.

The kidnappings occurred in mid-February, when the 32 Europeans were trekking in seven different groups through the desert, camping and riding motorcycles and four-by-four vehicles.

Seventeen hostages were freed in a May raid on a desert hideout by Algerian security forces.

The remaining captives were believed to have been taken to neighboring Mali by their abductors. One, a German woman, died of heat stroke and was buried by her abductors in June.

The kidnapping allegedly was carried out on orders of Salafist's No. 2 leader, Amari Saichi, a former army paratrooper known by the nom de guerre "Abderrazak the Paratrooper."

Saichi deserted his military barracks for the Algerian bush in 1991 at the start of the Islamic uprising.

He is believed responsible for many attacks against the nation's military. By some accounts, his group had split from Algeria's larger Islamic insurgency to protest that group's many attacks on civilians.

Germany's ZDF television, reporting from Bamako, said the hostages were exhausted and weakened after their desert ordeal but healthy under the circumstances. One of the tourists developed diabetes, ZDF said.

The freed hostages have said their captors divided them in groups and moved them to new hiding places every night.

Food ran out — first canned food from the tourists' supply, then rations of cereal. Medicine ran low and mosquito bites turned into festering wounds.