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Urgent Search Continues for 15 Tourists Missing in Algeria - 2003-05-15

Algerian troops are urgently searching for the remaining 15 tourists who disappeared in Algeria's Sahara desert three months ago. Seventeen other tourists were freed Tuesday and have since returned to their homes.

Algerian government-run newspapers and military sources say the remaining 15 missing European tourists in Algeria are being held in caves in the southern part of the country.

The 15 were part of a group of 32 western tourists who disappeared in Algeria's southern Sahara desert in mid-February.

Tuesday, about 100 Algerian troops attacked a guerrilla hideout and freed 17 tourists being held hostage. Algerian newspapers reported that between four and nine rebels were killed in a long gun battle.

Algerian troops are now searching for the remaining missing tourists, including 10 Germans, four Swiss and one Dutch national. The tourists were last seen in mid-February heading into the southern Sahara desert on motorcycles and four wheel drive vehicles.

Algerian authorities believe the tourists are being held by a guerrilla group known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which is suspected of having ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network.

The group has been fighting to create a strict Islamist state in Algeria.

The 17 freed tourists returned safely to their homes Wednesday, saying their hostage-takers were demanding a ransom in order to buy weapons. They said they were constantly on the move, attempting to stay ahead of pursuing Algerian soldiers.

Algerian government officials have been reluctant to publicly discuss the details of the kidnappings, for fear of endangering the lives of the remaining hostages.