Seventeen Sahara hostages freed.

Seventeen Sahara hostages freed.

Seventeen Sahara hostages freed.

What the foreign papers are saying.
May 15 2003 5:20 PM

Desert Rats

Thursday's European newspapers focused on topics ranging from the rescue of hostages in the Sahara to the downfall of a local media kingpin in the Czech Republic. German and Austrian dailies led with the release of 17 adventure tourists who had been held hostage—either by bandits or Islamic fundamentalists, depending on whom you ask—in the sands of southern Algeria. "Drama in the desert over for 17 hostages," read the above-the-fold headline in northern Germany's Weser Kurier. News of the captives' liberation did not spark celebration, however, as papers fretted about the 15 Western tourists who are still missing.

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Die Welt wrote, "There is no reason for joy, because the fate of the other 15 hostages, including 10 Germans, is uncertain and the circumstances of the release remain unclear." The Swiss paper Tribune de Genève said the events "caused more consternation than relief." Many reports drew from the Algerian daily El Watan (via Reuters), which described a dramatic desert raid by the Algerian military that lasted several hours and saw nine militants gunned down.

The abductions remain shrouded in mystery, with neither a ransom demand nor a claim of responsibility issued. Six groups totaling 32 people—mostly Germans, Austrians, and Swiss adventure tourists traversing the desert in vans, SUVs, and motorcycles, and ranging in age from teenagers to sixtysomethings—have disappeared in the last three months. The suspected culprits, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, are led by 31-year-old Mokhtar Belmokhtar, known as "The One-Eyed" and described as "a cross between Robin Hood and Osama Bin Laden," according to the BBC.

French newspapers were busy dealing with the fallout from Tuesday's nationwide public workers' strike protesting Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's pension reform plan. The premier claims his reforms will save the government pension system from impending collapse, but the Paris dailies said the strikes, which saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets in Paris alone, weakened the government's hand. Union leaders were "emboldened by the exceptional degree of mass mobilization," wrote Le Figaro, while Libération said Raffarin "may well be overestimating the solidity of his plan." (French and German translations courtesy of BBC Monitoring.) Unrest over planned pension reform is festering across the continent. Even in staid Vienna, tens of thousands demonstrated Tuesday against Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel's reform scheme, which is similar to Raffarin's.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the media is pressing the question of Iraq's nowhere-to-be-found weapons of mass destruction. The Independentdidn't mince words, addressing Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in a headline spanning the top of the front page: "So, Mr Straw, why did we go to war?" The paper juxtaposed a statement made before the Iraqi conflict, in which Straw warned of Saddam Hussein's capacity to deploy such weapons within 45 minutes of an order being given, to a remark this Wednesday in which Straw said finding the weapons was "not crucial."

Newspapers in Prague concerned themselves with more 20th-century matters, as dailies led with the downfall of media kingpin Vladimir Zelezny, one of the most successful Czechs of the nascent capitalist era. Lidove Noviny declared in its lead article: "The era of Vladimir Zelezny at TV Nova is over."

The story of TV Nova and its erstwhile partner, cosmetics magnate Ron Lauder, is a quintessential tale of the excesses of the 1990s. Lauder spied opportunity in the disintegration of the Soviet bloc and invested millions to build a private media empire in Eastern Europe, teaming up with influential locals like Zelezny. The relationship turned sour in 1999, when Zelezny decided he no longer needed his American partner and broke their contract, effectively walking away with the cash cow of Lauder's company, Central European Media Enterprises (CME). Lawsuits and recriminations ensued.

On Wednesday, Nova's new owner, a Czech financial group, announced it was sacking Zelezny in order to limit its liability in ongoing CME cases. Hours later, a court in Sweden issued its expected final verdict, ordering the Czech Republic to pay CME a whopping $355 million—an amount equal to the country's health ministry budget—for allowing Zelezny to break the contract. (The Swedish appeals court confirmed an earlier ruling by an international arbitration tribunal in which the Czech Republic itself, not Nova, was the defendant.)

Critics have called Zelezny a demagogue who brings out the worst in the Czechs, using his immensely popular channel to preach politics and spew tabloid trash. Yet among his chief defenders is the new Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, and Zelezny was elected to the Czech Senate last year. Few commentators expressed sympathy for the controversy magnet. "Four years ago, Vladimir Zelezny rose up against Ronald Lauder because he wanted to rule over Nova himself. Now he has nothing. But he can blame himself, and only himself," said a front-page comment in Lidove Noviny.

Scott MacMillan is a freelance journalist who lives in Cairo.