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Associated Press

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) - Some 31 European tourists who disappeared in the Sahara Desert are alive, and Algerian authorities are in talks with their captors, a parliamentary official said Sunday.

Mohammed Guerrout, president of a parliamentary commission on tourism and culture, spoke to Algerian radio after talks with Tourism Minister Lakhdar Dhorbani. He did not provide information on the identity of the abductors.

"The tourists are indeed alive, and negotiations are taking place to win their release," Guerrout told French-language radio.

The desert travelers, who had set off in seven separate groups on four-wheel drive vehicles or motorcycles, disappeared starting in mid-February.

None had hired guides.

Last week, a ranking Algerian official told The Associated Press that the tourists - 15 Germans, 10 Austrians, four Swiss, one Dutch and a Swede - were being held in the region of Illizi, near the Libyan border.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Algerian army had tracked them down. Some 5,000 Algerian troops and 300 local guides were brought in to search for them, using methods ranging from camelback search parties to helicopters with heat-seeking sensors.

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The official had refused to comment on the identities of the captors or to say whether they might belong to an Islamic extremist group. But he called them "terrorist groups," the term used to refer to Islamic insurgents.

There has been speculation that Islamic rebels battling Algeria's military-baked government for more than a decade might be behind the disappearances, though the Sahara has been largely spared the violence.

Guerrout, the parliamentary official, said authorities have turned down help offered by Germany and France, saying the disappearances were a domestic matter.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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