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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Algeria Frees 17 Kidnapped European Tourists

BERLIN -- Algerian authorities announced Wednesday that commandos freed 17 European tourists who had been kidnapped in the Sahara Desert by an Islamic group linked to the al-Qaida terror network.

German and Austrian officials were restrained in their reaction, citing 15 tourists still held after disappearing from caravans over the last 2 1/2 months.

The Algerian army said the Salafist Group for Call and Combat was responsible for taking the desert travelers, the official news agency APS reported.

Algerian newspapers reported the hostages were freed Tuesday in a pitched battle that left nine suspected hostage-takers dead. The clash lasted several hours, with army units trading fire with about 10 hostage-takers armed with assault rifles in the desert about 1,900 kilometers south of Algiers, the Arab-language daily El Watan reported.

Officials in Germany, Austria and Sweden confirmed the release of 10 Austrians, six Germans and a Swede, who were expected to return to their home countries Wednesday. Citing concern about the safety of the remaining 15 hostages, they refused to comment on the circumstances of their release.

No group ever publicly claimed responsibility for the kidnappings, opening speculation that the kidnapping could be in retaliation for the conviction in a Frankfurt court of four Algerians for plotting a failed terror attack in 2000.

Other theories blamed Islamic rebels battling Algeria's military-backed government for more than a decade, or possibly smugglers active in the area.