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Algeria Denies Reports of Freeing European Hostages - 2003-05-19

Algeria has denied reports that its forces freed a second group of European tourists held hostage for the past three months in the Sahara desert.

Algeria's official news agency quotes military officials as saying efforts to win the release of the 15 Europeans are continuing. Earlier, news reports quoted other security sources as saying the hostages had been released near the town of Illizi, 1,200 kilometers south of the capital, Algiers.

The group comprises 10 Germans, four Swiss citizens and a Dutch man.

Last week, Algerian government commandoes rescued 17 other tourists held by the same Algerian Islamist-militant organization, known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. Algerian authorities believe the group has ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network. Those hostages were freed unharmed after a fierce four-hour gun battle, which left a soldier and nine of the rebels dead.

The drama began when the 32 European adventure travelers disappeared between mid-February and March in an area in southern Algeria famous for ancient graves, and frequented by bandits. The tourists traveled in separate groups without guides.

News trickled out that the tourists had been kidnapped by the militant group. One Western diplomat says the rebels had demanded ransom to fund terrorist operations. But analysts and diplomats alike say the kidnappings showed that the militants were seeking an international profile as their war against the Algerian government loses ground.

Islamic militants have been fighting the Algerian authorities for the past 11 years, since the government annulled election results that apparently gave an Islamist party a majority of the popular vote.