Confusion over Sahara hostages
ALGIERS, Algeria -- Germany has sent an official to the West African nation of Mali amid conflicting reports over the fate of 14 European hostages being held in the Sahara desert.
German television station ZDF has reported captors had released the tourists and said that ransom money had been handed over.
Competing station ARD later contradicted that information -- reporting that a Malian military plane sent to pick-up the group returned empty.
The German foreign ministry has sent the official to the capital city of Bamako in a bid to recover the captives, refusing to comment so far on the status of the hostages.
Militants seized the tourists five months ago in southern Algeria, but it is not clear where they are and what condition they are in. Reports say they were taken across the desert to neighboring Mali.
Algeria's government has offered little information, and Mali's foreign minister says only that negotiations are still going on.
The crisis began in mid-February when 32 European tourists were abducted by an Islamic group while on an adventure tour in a remote region of the Sahara desert.
In May, 17 hostages were set free in a raid on a desert hide-out by an elite unit of the Algerian security forces.
Nine Germans, four Swiss and a Dutch are still being held hostage. Another captive, a German woman, reportedly died of heat stroke and was buried by her abductors.
Military sources and Algerian newspapers have said the Europeans are being held by a cell of an Algerian Islamist militant group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).
The four-year-old GSPC is led by Hassan Hattab and, along with the decade-old Armed Islamist Group (GIA), has been fighting a bloody war against Algerian authorities to create a purist Islamist state.
The decade of violence has led to more than 100,000 deaths.
Authorities believe the GSPC -- which has not previously kidnapped tourists -- has ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.
Thousands of troops were sent to search the Sahara for the missing Europeans in March.
Authorities have criticized the "adventure holidaymakers" for traveling in 4 x 4 vehicles without guides in the Algerian Sahara that stretches across two million square kilometers (772,000 square miles).