Fourteen European tourists – including four Swiss – are on their way home, after being held hostage in the Sahara desert for almost six months.This content was published on August 19, 2003 - 17:45
The Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, said she was delighted at the news.
"I am happy and relieved. We have spent six anxious months," said Calmy-Rey.
The Swiss foreign ministry confirmed the release late on Monday.
"We have been informed that the hostages have been handed over to the government of Mali," Simon Hubacher of the Swiss foreign ministry told swissinfo.
"They were released on Monday afternoon and the Malian government told us that all 14 people are in good health."
The hostages were due to be flown into the capital Bamako on Tuesday night by a German military aircraft. They were being picked up after a long journey by road to the eastern Malian town of Gao.
A second German plane will then fly all the freed hostages to Cologne, Germany. The Swiss foreign ministry said the four Swiss were expected to arrive in Zurich on Wednesday morning.
Verena Hediger, the wife of the one of the freed hostages, the Swiss guide, Marc Hediger, was overjoyed at the news.
"That's absolutely fantastic," she said.
Negotiations between the kidnappers - believed to be the Algerian militant group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) - and Malian officials had been widely reported in recent weeks.
The hostages were part of a group of 32 European tourists seized in separate incidents in late February and early March while travelling in southern Algeria.
Seventeen hostages were freed in May when Algerian commandos stormed a desert hideout belonging to the GSPC, killing all the kidnappers.
The head of a Swiss crisis group, Peter Sutter, and the German deputy foreign minister, Jürgen Chrobog, arrived in Mali on Sunday in anticipation of the hostages’ release.
There had been much speculation that Berlin was discussing ransom demands of several million Swiss francs with the kidnappers. Officials declined to give details of the terms of the hostages’ release.
The German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, said the kidnappers should not be allowed to escape unpunished.
The four Swiss went missing in Algeria in late February, after travelling into the Sahara desert without a guide.
In late July, it emerged that they - along with nine Germans and a Dutch national - had been taken to neighbouring Mali by their kidnappers.
One hostage - a 45-year-old German woman - reportedly died of heatstroke while in captivity and was buried by her captors.
The hostages’ release ends a gruelling six-month hunt for the group, involving Algerian, Malian, Swiss and German investigators.
In July, Switzerland sent a police officer to Mali to join around a dozen Dutch and German experts, who had been working on the case there. A second officer was dispatched to Mali in August.
swissinfo with agencies
February 22/23: Last contact with 11 tourists in southern Algeria – six German, four Swiss and one Dutch national.
March 17: A second and third group of tourists are reported missing.
March 30: A fourth group consisting of five Germans and one Swede is reported missing.
April 2: Four more German tourists disappear.
April 11: Two more Austrians go missing in the Sahara.
April 28: Clothing and other items belonging to the tourists are found.
May 4: Algeria confirms that the tourists are alive.
May 6: Authorities in Algeria deny negotiating the hostages’ release with the kidnappers.
May 7: Some 5,000 Algerian troops comb the Sahara in search of the missing tourists.
May 10: A Swiss foreign ministry official meets Algerian counterparts to press for more information.
May 13: 17 hostages – ten Austrians, six Germans and one Swede - are released.
August 18: The remaining 14 hostages are freed and are due to head to the capital Bamako.
August 19: The tourists are expected to arrive in Bamako before returning home.
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