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Five months of Sahara hostage drama

17 hostages were freed in May.
17 hostages were freed in May.

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BAMAKO, Mali -- Germany said Monday its efforts to free 14 European tourists held hostage in the Sahara desert by Algerian militants for more than five months were in "a final phase." (Full story)

Here are the details of five-and-a-half traumatic months in the hostage drama:

February 22, 2003 -- Three separate groups of tourists vanish in Sahara desert -- six Germans, one Dutch and four Swiss nationals.

March 8 -- Last contact with a further group of four Germans.

March 17 -- Last contact with another group of six Germans.

March 23 -- Last contact with a group of eight Austrians.

March 24 -- First search parties leave for Sahara. Italian group report finding the mini-van used by the group of six Germans abandoned in desert.

April 4 -- Searchers reported using diverse technology from camels and helicopters equipped with heat-seeking sensors.

April 8 -- Sign found in the desert thought to be written by one of the groups saying "We are alive," Austrian foreign minister says.

April 11 -- Two more Austrians reported to have vanished.

April 13 -- Austrian TV report quoting Algerian military sources says missing 31 have been kidnapped

April 14 -- Dutch foreign ministry says its missing nationals have been abducted. Austrian government says no proof of this.

April 16 -- Missing Saharan tourists described as "foolhardy" by Algerian tour operators and officials for travelling without guides.

April 21 -- Algerian minister of tourism says "no theories ruled out" over disappearances.

Hattab
Undated police handout picture of GSPC leader Hassan Hattab

April 23 -- Bodies of group of Algerians who went missing on April 8 found in desert. One theory is they were kidnapped with the Europeans.

April 24 -- Camper van of a couple who went missing discovered in desert.

April 30 -- Lone German traveller goes missing.

May 3 -- Algerian interior minister says "traces" of 31 missing tourists located.

May 6 -- Algerian tourism ministers says no negotiations going on with "any possible kidnappers." It is later reported in Algerian media that six vehicles have been located and the talks with the abductors have broken down.

May 10 -- Kidnappers are demanding 1 million Swiss francs ($775,000) for each hostage, Swiss magazine ''L'Hebdo'' says.

French media reports say Algerian security forces have flown to northern Mali to hunt down leader of a smuggling gang believed by many to be behind kidnap.

May 11 -- German magazine ''Focus'' says Algeria refuses to let German government negotiate directly with hostage-takers. "Focus" says previous week, president Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria declined a German offer to send in more terrorism specialists to help solve the crisis peacefully and two anti-terrorism experts have left Algeria.

May 12 -- Another German tourist reported missing.

German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, visits Algiers, says Berlin is working with Algerian authorities to ensure that the disappeared return home ''safe and sound,'' adding he does not favor solution by use of force.

May 13 -- Algerian army frees 17 hostages in an early morning raid on militants' hideout. Nine kidnappers reported killed in shoot out.

May 14 -- Official statement says the tourists were being held hostage by the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, Algerian terrorist organization said to have links with Al Qaeda.

May 16 -- Algerian ambassador in Switzerland asks the rescued tourists to stop giving details about their experiences, saying the stories could endanger the lives of 15 still held hostage.

May 19 -- Algerian military denies reports that remaining 15 had been freed but said its forces are working for their release.

May 22 -- One of the Germans freed reads out an appeal to the abductors to release remaining 15.

June 8 -- Abandoned red Toyota Hiace camper van belonging to one group of tourists is found in the desert, French media reports say. Two men are seriously injured -- the vehicle was booby-trapped.

Algerian foreign minister says no negotiations are going on with kidnappers.

June 22 -- German newspaper says that German spy planes are helping in the search for the captives.

July 16 -- Contacts going on with kidnappers, German foreign ministry says.

July 18 -- German TV station ARD says hostages have been taken to Mali.

July 29 -- ARD reports death of one of the hostages. Michaela Spitzer, 45, is said to have died of heat exhaustion and been buried in the Sahara.

July 30 -- Malian magazine ''L'Independant'' says video showing hostages and their kidnappers has been sent to Mali government.

August 1 -- Germany's n-tv reports kidnappers demanding $70 million to free the remaining 14 captives.

August 4 -- Six of hostages need "urgent medical attention" Algerian newspaper ''El Watan'' says.

August 13 -- Hostage takers have accepted food and medical aid from Germany, French media reports say.

August 14 -- German junior foreign minister Jurgen Chrobog flies to Mali saying there has been "a positive development."

August 17 -- Contradictory reports in German media. Some say hostages have been freed, others that intense negotiations going on.

August 18 -- Talks to free 14 European tourists held hostage in the Sahara desert by Algerian militants for more than five months have reached an "extremely decisive phase," top Malian official says.

Germany says its efforts to free 14 now in the final stage. French media reports say a German plane has landed in the northern town of Gao to pick up the hostages


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