BAMAKO, Mali – Islamic extremists freed 14 European tourists on Monday, six months after they were kidnapped by an Al Qaeda-linked group in the Sahara Desert (search).
The negotiated release ended an ordeal that began in southern Algeria (search), where the militants snatched a total of 32 tourists making desert safaris without guides. After some of the tourists were freed in a raid, the militants fled with their remaining captives into neighboring Mali.
The 14 -- nine Germans, four Swiss and a Dutchman -- were turned over to government officials late Monday, said Seydou Sissouma, spokesman for Mali's President Amadou Toure, whose government has been negotiating for the releases.
"Today is a great day for us, a great day for Germany," German Deputy Foreign Minister Juergen Chrobog, who was in Mali to aid negotiations, told ZDF television. He credited the "great diplomatic skill of the Malian president" for securing their freedom, but declined to give further details.
The freed hostages were to spend the night in the far northern desert city of Gao, before flying to Mali's capital, Bamako, on Tuesday. They were expected in Germany within a day.
Mali government officials refused immediate comment on the hostages' conditions, or any aspect of their captivity. Authorities have said nothing publicly about ransom or any other demands of the hostage-takers.
Asked about media reports that a ransom was paid, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told reporters Monday that it was German policy not to make such payments. He refused to elaborate.
Algerian authorities say the kidnappers are linked to the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (search), generally seen as the less bloody of two main Islamic extremist movements behind a more than decade-long insurgency in Algeria.
The Salafist group has been linked to the Al Qaeda terror organization.
The kidnappings took place 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 of the hostages were freed in a raid on a desert hideout in May 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 tourists were believed held 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 split from Algeria's larger Islamic insurgency in protest of that group's many attacks on civilians.
Mali and Germany had conducted increasingly high-profile negotiations for the hostages' release.
German media reported through the weekend that release of the 14 hostages was imminent.
Mali stationed a government plane in the Sahara town of Tessalit, in far north Mali. Germany has kept one of its air force jets, equipped with an on-board hospital, on standby at the Mali capital.
German television reported Sunday the captives were to be turned over to intermediaries, but said the release hit a hitch when the group failed to turn up as expected at an airstrip in northern Mali.
Germany's ZDF television, reporting from Bamako, said the hostages were exhausted and weakened after their desert ordeal, but healthy under the circumstances. However, one of the tourists has developed diabetes, ZDF said.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Walter Lindner said there was no sign any captives were life-threateningly ill.
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.
Once freed, the tourists were expected to be flown to a military airport in Cologne (search).