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Deadline looms for Austrian hostages

©

Latest update : 2008-03-16

Vienna sent an envoy to Mali to secure the release of two Austrian tourists abducted by al Qaeda's North African branch last month, though it denied talk of a ransom. The kidnappers' deadline expires Sunday night.

BAMAKO - An Austrian diplomatic envoy worked on Sunday to try to obtain the release of two Austrian tourists being held hostage by al Qaeda in Mali's remote northeast Kidal region, Austrian and Malian officials said.

The captives, Andrea Kloiber, 43, and Wolfgang Ebner, 51, went missing while on holiday in Tunisia last month and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb said it seized them on Feb. 22.

Al Qaeda demanded a ransom and the liberation of 10 militants held in Algeria and Tunisia within three days from midnight on Thursday, a deadline expiring at midnight on Sunday.

Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said in a statement in Vienna that the government's aim was the earliest possible release of the hostages.

"So, for example, a former Austrian ambassador has, at my request, met the president of Mali, Amadou Toumani Toure, and informed him personally about the case," she said.

A senior Malian military officer confirmed information reported by an Algerian Web site, Ennahar, which said that the two hostages were being held captive in northern Mali.

"Intelligence shows their presence in Malian territory, in the Kidal region, more precisely in the Tegargar sector," the officer, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

Austrian officials have said they would not negotiate with terrorists, but the Ennahar Web site, which specialises in security matters, said on Saturday the senior Austrian envoy had started negotiations by telephone with the kidnappers.

Plassnik did not confirm this.

Mali straddles the Sahara and the arid Sahel belt to the south, a region roamed by smugglers, rebel groups and nomads.

Al Qaeda's north Africa wing, which changed its name last year from the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), has long been involved in smuggling, money laundering and protection rackets in the region.

The Malian officer said the zone where the two captives were being held was a well-known Islamist hideout.

"The area from Tessalit to Kidal has become a fiefdom of the Islamists. They know the geography, which is vast and difficult to control. You can find bearded Salafist Islamists of all kinds there, from Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Maghreb," he said.

Austria's Plassnik did not name the senior diplomat sent to Mali but some Algerian media reports said it was Anton Prohaska, a former ambassador to France.

The Web site of Ennahar said the captives were being held by a group led by Algerian militant Abdelhamid abu Zeid at an al Qaeda base about 150 km (95 miles) from Kidal town in Mali.
 

Date created : 2008-03-16

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