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Italian diplomats work to release tourists in Niger

Written by: Staff
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DAKAR, Aug 23 (Reuters) Italian diplomats said today they were working with the authorities in Niger to obtain the release of two tourists being held by desert bandits after their group was ambushed near the border with Chad.

The tourists, who included 21 Italians, were travelling in a convoy of off-road vehicles when they were surrounded by bandits near Lake Chad on Monday. Most of the group's members were released yesterday but two Italians were still being held.

''I was told they were surrounded by bandits,'' said Giovanni Davoli, interim charge d'affaires at the Italian embassy in Ivory Coast, which also covers Niger, after speaking with some of those released.

''They stole some goods from them but didn't take everything.

They didn't tell me about any violence,'' he told Reuters by telephone from Niger's capital Niamey.

Davoli said no contact had been made with the two Italians still being held or with the bandits because communications with the remote desert region were difficult. But he said diplomats were working closely with the authorities in Niger.

Those released were in good health and had decided to return north across the Sahara to the desert town of Bilma, from where they planned to drive through Algeria before returning to Italy.

''They have food, money, fuel and water, they just want to get to Bilma and then continue their trip to Algeria and get back to Italy as soon as possible,'' Davoli said.

The group was led by an experienced Italian traveller and off-road enthusiast who had made several independent journeys down through Libya into the Sahara in recent years, the tour agency which arranged the group's Libyan visas told Reuters.

Niger's border area with Chad lies more than 1,000 km (620 miles) from the capital Niamey and is largely beyond government control. It is renowned for banditry, including carjackings and highway robberies against aid workers and foreign travellers.

Foreign embassies advise their nationals only to travel by convoy in the region with a member of the security forces and a local guide, particularly after some 50 armed men attacked and robbed three groups of tourists in the area in 2004.

The Italian Foreign Ministry said yesterday one German who was among the group had managed to escape the attack and first raised the alarm with German authorities.

REUTERS SHB RAI1856

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