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Mali Says European Hostages Now Free After Five Months Captivity - 2003-08-18

Fourteen European hostages have been released after a five month ordeal in the Sahara desert. They are reported to be in reasonable health.

Nine Germans, four Swiss and a Dutch tourist have been released after being kidnapped and held for five months by an Islamic fundamentalist group in the Sahara desert.

A spokesman for President Amadou Toure confirmed the release of the 14 late Monday.

Their release comes at the end of a day of uncertainty over whether the kidnap victims would be freed Monday as promised. The German government has been reluctant to publicize details throughout the negotiation process.

The fourteen were part of a group of 32 European tourists who were kidnapped while touring the deserts of southern Algeria, know for its ancient burial sites but also rife with bandits.

Algeria has some of the Sahara's most spectacular scenery, but tourists had only just begun returning to the country after a decade of internal conflict that lead to over 100,000 deaths. This hostage-taking incident has undermined perceptions of the country's return to stability.

Seventeen of the initial 32 hostages were freed in a raid by Algerian special forces in May. Since then, the remaining 14 hostages were held in unknown locations in neighboring Mali.

According to the government of Algeria, the kidnappers belong to a group called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat who are fighting for a purist Islamist state in Algeria.

The hostages are said to be in a reasonable state of health considering the ordeal that they have been through.

However, one of the hostages died while being held by kidnappers, killed by heatstroke. Another of the returned hostages is thought to have developed diabetes as a result of the harsh conditions they have endured for the last five months.

A German plane is on standby at the Malian capital of Bamako, ready to take the tourists to Europe and give them any needed medical care.