August 1, 2007 / 12:08 PM / 12 years ago

Germany reassesses ransoms as kidnappings multiply

By Noah Barkin

BERLIN, Aug 1 (Reuters) - Thirty years after a series of left-wing kidnappings and killings known as the "German Autumn" traumatised the nation, Germany is struggling to cope with a new threat from hostage-takers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In what some dub the "German Summer" - a nod to the havoc wreaked by Red Army Faction (RAF) extremists in 1977 - Germans are being snatched at an alarming rate by militants who appear keenly aware that the country has paid ransoms in the past.

This has forced the government to take a new look at how it deals with kidnappers, with some hard-liners insisting that all consideration of ransom payments must stop.

"This is a new game but the rules have not yet been developed," said Cornelius Sommer, a former ambassador and top official in the foreign ministry who played a central role in efforts to free German hostages in the Philippines in 2000.

"The multiplicity of kidnapping cases has completely changed the situation."

Berlin’s official line, repeated on numerous occasions in recent weeks, is that it will not bow to militant demands.

"We undertake everything in our power, pursue every responsible avenue to protect the lives of German citizens," government spokesman Thomas Steg said this week. "Our stance is unchanged. The German government cannot be blackmailed."

But it is an open secret that Germany has paid in the past.

Diplomats privately acknowledge that Berlin funnelled some 5 million euros ($6.85 million) in "development aid" to Mali in 2003 to secure the release of European tourists kidnapped by Algerian rebels in the Sahara.

They suspect the lion’s share of that sum found its way to the hostage-takers, strengthening militants who have since been linked to al Qaeda.

German media reported the government paid 5 million euros to secure the release of archaeologist Susanne Osthoff in 2005 and 10 million for two engineers last year. All three were kidnapped in Iraq.


Berlin now faces pressure to free an engineer identified as Rudolf B. who was seized by insurgents in Afghanistan this month and a German-Iraqi man in his 20s named Sinan who was kidnapped in Baghdad in February.

On Tuesday, Al Jazeera television broadcast a video of the man in Afghanistan in which militants demanded Germany withdraw its troops from the central Asian country.

"If you are a terrorist the perception is that Germany pays for hostages and that is problematic," said Nick Pratt, director of the Program on Terrorism and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall Center in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.

"These kidnappings are not haphazard," added Pratt, who worked for the CIA in the Middle East.

Germany is by no means the only country that has shown a willingness to bargain with hostage takers.

Italy was criticised this year for admitting to a "prisoner swap" with Taliban militants in Afghanistan — a move analysts said set a precedent and raised the stakes for Western hostages.

Germany is reassessing its tactics and the debate could heat up as the anniversary nears of the September 1977 kidnapping of German industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer.

Schleyer was held for more than a month by RAF militants demanding the release of jailed comrades and killed when the government of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt refused to budge.

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