Saharan vacations are popular in the German-speaking world, but the adventure tours may have become too wild for some. Little by little, 31 European travelers have vanished in Algeria.
Some believe it could be backlash against a German move in the worldwide war on terror.
In February and March, 15 Germans, 10 Austrians, four Swiss, a Dutchman and a Swede traveling in seven separate groups disappeared in the southeastern corner of Algeria, more than 1,000 miles from the capital, Algiers. The only possible signs of them since have been an aborted satellite phone call and a note that simply said: "We are still alive."
There have been no ransom demands, fueling speculation among European media that they may have been kidnapped for financial or political motives. The Associated Press quoted an Algerian official Tuesday as saying the Europeans were being held hostage by terrorist groups, though he refused to name the groups.
Suspicions Fall on Terror Group
The official told The AP the Alegerian army had learned the tourists were being held in the region of Illizi, near the Libyan border.
"They are alive and are being held in several groups separated geographically," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The German government would not comment on the report. There was no word on what steps might be taken to free the tourists, or on what the captors' motives could be.
Last week, the Austrian weekly Profil claimed the tourists had been kidnapped as human shields because Islamisist terrorists feared a clampdown by the authorities.
A European Interpol source told ABCNEWS that the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, commonly known by the acronym GSPC, is "most likely" responsible for kidnapping the tourists. The GSPC is a splinter group of the Algerian-based Armed Islamic Group, known as GIA, and was added to the U.S. State Department's foreign terrorist list in March 2002.
GIA is believed to have killed thousands of civilians — including more than 100 foreigners — in massacres during its campaign against Algeria's military government during the 1990s.
The Sahara Desert tourists — traveling in four-wheel-drive vehicles or on motorcycles and without local guides — began disappearing in early February, coinciding with the trial in Germany of four Algerian GSPC operatives.
The four, who had been living in Frankfurt, were arrested on Christmas Day 2000 and accused of plotting to blow up a busy market in Strasbourg, France, on New Year's Eve. On March 10, the four suspects were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms of 10 to 12 years.
Intelligence sources have suggested the GSPC may have specifically kidnapped German-speaking tourists in order to exchange them for release of the convicted bombers.
Swiss, German and Austrian investigation teams have been searching for the missing tourists alongside Algerian soldiers, using ancient nomadic tracking methods as well heat-sensing radar. Searchers have been traveling in helicopter, four-wheel-drive vehicles, and on camels.