Missing Tourists Negotiations
Tourists who vanished in desert were 'abducted by bandit chief'
By John Lichfield and Matthew Beard
19 April 2003
Negociations were said to be underway yesterday to free at least some of the 31 European desert trekkers who have vanished in the Algerian Sahara over the past two months.
After weeks of false trails and reluctant co-operation by the Algerian authorities, it now appears certain that the tourists – 14 Germans, 10 Austrians, four Swiss, a Dutchman, a Swede and a Norwegian – have been taken captive by a bandit chieftain, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, part Robin Hood and part Islamist extremist.
Mr Belmokhtar – also known as Belaouer ("the one-eyed") – operates in a vast sweep of desert in south-east Algeria. Although an Islamist volunteer in Afghanistan in his teens, he was for many years regarded as a "romantic" outlaw who robbed but never killed his victims and sometimes helped the poor. In recent months, he is believed to have formed an alliance with an extreme Islamist organisation that has links with al-Qa'ida.
The fate of the missing trekkers, who have vanished with their all-terrain vehicles and motorbikes in the last nine weeks, was for a long time a mystery, which the Algerian authorities appeared reluctant to solve. It was several weeks before the disappearance of several independent groups of trekkers was linked and taken seriously by the Algerian and European governments.
Four German-speaking Swiss trekkers travelling near the Libyan border disappeared in early February. Eleven tourists, travelling by motorbike, vanished on 21 February. Several other small parties vanished before 10 Austrians were declared missing after failing to show up for their pre-booked ferry from Tunis.
The Algerian government has operated a virtual news blackout, saying any publicity about alleged hostage-takers may cause them to panic and kill the captives.
The Algerian press said the tourists, operating without guides in one of the most unforgiving landscapes in the world, may simply have got lost – in seven separate groups.
The trekkers were navigating by Global Positioning Systems (GPS), which establish a precise position on the Earth's surface by satellite. Algerian newspapers, quoting government officials, said the United States had scrambled GPS systems to confuse the Iraqis before the start of the war.
The German, Austrian and Swiss governments refused to accept the explanation and issued statements that the incidents were "not coincidental but a result of something systematic". They sent teams of anti-terrorist police and secret service agents to help with – and watch over – the search undertaken by 1,200 Algerian police and army.
The only signs of life from the missing tourists were an aborted mobile phone call from a Swiss trekker and a message, written in German, found in the desert, which said: "We are still alive." Such was the pessimism among friends and relatives of the missing Germans, several had started to send toothbrushes and hairbrushes to police so their bodies could be identified by their DNA.
Yesterday, however, an Austrian newspaper, Profil, reported that nomadic Bedouin tribesmen had told Algerian authorities that they had seen 11 of the missing trekkers with their kidnappers in the desert. The newspaper said senior Algerian officials had started talks over their release.
A spokesman for the Austrian Foreign Ministry downplayed the report, without completely denying it. "Every day, another theory is put forward," he said. "These are all hypotheses and speculations that we can neither confirm nor rule out. From our point of view, there is no new information about the hostages."
Earlier this week, the Dutch Foreign Ministry said the Dutch trekker Arjen Hilbers, 36, had been "taken hostage".
French newspapers say the Algerian government is privately convinced that the European adventurers have been taken captive by Mr Belmokhtar, 31, and his band, known after the leader's initials as the MBM.
For a decade since his return from Afghanistan, Mr Belmokhtar has been involved in drug-smuggling, gun-running and highway robbery in the south-eastern corner of Algeria, 1,000 miles from the capital, Algiers. Three years ago, the annual Paris-Dakar car rally was diverted after Mr Belmokhtar threatened to attack the competitors.
In recent months, there have been reports that he has declared himself the regional leader of an extreme Islamist organisation, the "Salafist Group for Combat and Prayer" – the same group believed to be involved in a plot to use the nerve gas sarin on the London underground.
The al-Qa'ida leader, Osama bin Laden, has given a wide berth to most Algerian islamist groups, regarding them as deeply infliltrated – or even operated – by the military. The Salafist group is, however, regarded by French intelligence services as one of the satellites of the al-Qa'ida network.
This has led to speculation that Mr Belmokhtar may have deliberately targeted German and German-speaking trekkers in an attempt to round up hostages to exchange for four Algerian Salafists who have been jailed in Germany for planning a bomb attack on Strasbourg cathedral. German government officials insist, however, that they have received no political or ransom demands for the missing tourists.
Sahara adventure tourism appears to be a favourite of the German-speaking world. Of the 15,000 – 20,000 tourists who visited Algeria last year, about 8,000 came from Germany.
Werner Noether of the Sahara Club Deutschland said: "The danger of being mugged or murdered [in the Sahara] was not considered to be much greater than in France or Germany until now", though he acknowledged the added danger further south on the border with Niger and Mali.
German language websites continued to promote treks in the Algerian Sahara weeks after the first groups went missing. The sites say the Sahara is not only a beautiful and little explored wilderness but a possible source of riches and claim trekkers can easily find saleable artefacts dating back to the Stone Age.
Mohamed Rouani, head of Algeria's National Union of Alternative Tourism Agencies, said independent trekkers were placing their own lives in danger and "destroying" the Sahara, which he described as "an immense museum".