DUBAI, March 13 (Reuters) - Al Qaeda's North African wing
threatened on Thursday to kill two Austrian hostages it had
abducted in Tunisia if Vienna failed to secure the release of
some of the group's members jailed in Tunisia and Algeria.
The three-day ultimatum starts at midnight on Thursday, al
Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb said in a statement posted on an
Islamist Web site.
Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said efforts were
being made to secure the release of the hostages but noted that
the demands were outside Vienna's jurisdiction.
"Austria would be responsible for the lives of the two
hostages should the deadline come and our demands are not met,"
the militant group said.
"As you care for the safety of your citizens, we care to
free our brothers who face the ugliest forms of torture at the
prisons of Tunisia ... and Algeria," it said.
"We ask the families of the hostages and the Austrian public
opinion to press their country's (government) to meet the
demands of the mujahideen to preserve the lives of the two
tourists," it added.
The demands and a list of the names of the group's prisoners
were sent to Vienna through unidentified mediators, it said in
the posting, which had pictures of the hostages identified in
Austrian media as Andrea Kloiber, 43, and Wolfgang Ebner, 51.
The group, which has been waging a violent campaign against
government forces and foreign interests in North Africa, said
its members were jailed for confronting "the new crusade against
Plassnik confirmed that Vienna had received the demands.
"They (kidnappers) have taken up contact with the Austrian
side. Political demands have been made whose fulfilment do not
fall within the responsibility of the Austrian side," she said
in a statement.
"Appropriate efforts are being made to obtain the return of
both hostages to Austria unharmed," Plassnik said.
The hostages, who went missing last month during a trip to
Tunisia, appeared in the pictures dressed in robes and
surrounded by militants in a desert area. Their captors were
armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade
The face of the woman, who wore a blue headscarf was
digitally blurred, apparently to abide with an austere
interpretation of Islam which says women should cover their
Al Qaeda has said it seized the two hostages on Feb. 22 and
warned Western tourists not to visit Tunisia. The new statement
expanded the warning to include other Maghreb states -- Morocco,
Mauritania and Algeria.
An Algerian newspaper said on Tuesday that the Austrian
tourists have been moved by their kidnappers to Mali across the
A senior security source in Mali said it was possible the
kidnappers had moved to the northern desert town of Tessalit,
where the al Qaeda wing -- formerly known as the Salafist Group
for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) -- is believed to have a base.
The GSPC kidnapped 32 European tourists in the Sahara in
early 2003 and held some of them for six months. When they were
eventually released in northern Mali, media reports said the
German government had paid $5 million for their release.
Analysts have said the fact the kidnappers had announced the
abduction suggested they were ready to negotiate and pointed out
that the group had seized hostages to raise money in the past.
Al Qaeda has linked its action to an Israeli offensive in
Gaza, saying "our folk in Gaza are being slaughtered by the Jews
with consent from Western countries."
Israel last week ended an offensive which killed 120
Palestinians in Gaza.