First there were threats by terrorists, and bombings of resorts in other countries where Israelis or Americans vacation. Then there was SARS, with warnings not to travel to Asia. Now 31 tourists have been kidnapped from Algeria since February?an alarming number of people to have been taken captive, if that’s what happened to them. The tourists, including 15 Germans and 10 Austrians, weren’t on a guided tour; they were exploring on their own in small groups. They seem to have vanished into thin air, leaving behind only a cryptic message carved in the sand, and no one has any idea who might have taken them or why.

The missing tourists were in six or seven separate parties that also included four Swiss nationals and a Swede. Some were crossing the Sahara by motorbike. Several of the tourists’ native countries say they’ve been kidnapped, although they won’t give details. The message “We are alive” was found in the Sahara on April 8, according to Austrian official Thomas Buchsbaum. This is reminiscent of the first settlement in North America in 1586, the Roanoke Colony, where everyone vanished, leaving behind only the cryptic message “croatan” carved on a tree.

Hendrik Dek, of the Dutch Government, says, “We have confirmation that Dutchman Arjen Hilbers has been kidnapped. We are not commenting on the matter in the interests of the inquiry and the safety of those who have been kidnapped.” No ransom demands are believed to have been received.

German official Otto Schily says he?s cautiously hopeful that all 31 missing tourists are alive. Austria’s Benita-Maria Ferrero-Waldner has “glimmer of hope.” But she warns their families not to be too optimistic.

Algerian media suggests that terrorists linked to al-Qaeda could be behind the disappearances. An Algerian army officer says, “I don’t think they are in Algeria, nor that they are dead or lost in the desert.” He finds it strange that no trace of the tourists’ vehicles or clothes have been found, and no bodies have been recovered.

Searchers have used helicopters and camels. “It’s as if the travelers had vanished into thin air,” said desert guide Mouloud Hiri. “It’s a mystery. The nomads we come across in the desert haven’t noticed anything unusual.”

There are mysteries of the present?and mysteries of the past.

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