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Italian diplomats work to release Niger hostages

Written by: Staff
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DAKAR, Aug 23 (Reuters) Italian diplomats today said they were working with security forces in Niger to obtain the release of two tourists missing deep in the Sahara desert after their group was ambushed by bandits.

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

''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 missing Italians or with the bandits because communications with the remote desert region were difficult.

The group was attacked between the oasis town of Bilma and the village of Agadem, on a particularly arduous 250 km stretch of ancient camel-caravan route that weaves its way across dozens of dunes deep in the desert.

Security forces from the regions of Agadez and Diffa were working together to try to find the missing tourists, hoping to trace the bandits' movements from the point at which the rest of the group were released.

''We can't confirm whether they are bandits from Niger or Chadian rebels because the border with Chad is so porous,'' Niger government spokesman Mohamed Ben Omar said.

SAND STORMS AND BANDITS Those released were in good health and were being escorted by Niger's army back to 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.

A web log maintained by the group during its journey showed photos of a convoy of Land Rover and Toyota jeeps driving through sand storms and desert villages. The latest entry was dated August 19.

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.

The region is inhabited largely by Tuareg, Toubou and Arab nomads, some of whom complain they are economically marginalised and forced to rely on smuggling and robbery to survive.

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 on Tuesday one German who was among the group had managed to escape the attack and first raised the alarm with German authorities.

REUTERS VJ BST0031

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