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Vienna confident hostage talks will continue

Latest update : 2008-03-24

Austria is confident that negotiations for the release of two of its citizens kidnapped by al Qaeda in Maghreb last month can be continued after a deadline set for midnight Sunday. Maurin Picard reports from Vienna.

Austria is confident negotiations to secure the release of two of its citizens kidnapped last month in northern Africa can be continued after a deadline set for midnight Sunday.
"The crisis task force, working on the release of Andrea Kloiber and Wolfgang Ebner, estimates on the basis of current information that there will be more time for extensive efforts past the Sunday midnight deadline," the Austrian foreign ministry said in a statement Sunday.
Ministry spokesman Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal insisted however that it could not be said that the deadline was being postponed.
"I would only say that the talks can continue past the deadline," he told AFP.
The kidnappers initially set a March 16 deadline for talks but postponed it at the last minute until midnight on March 23.
The Algeria-based Al-Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb is demanding the release of a number of Islamists imprisoned in Algeria and Tunisia in exchange for the Austrians' freedom.
It has threatened to kill the hostages if any attempt is made to free them by force.
Austrian media reported the group was demanding five million euros (7.9 million dollars).
Ebner, 51, and Kloiber, 44, were abducted on February 22 as they were vacationing in the Tunisian desert and are now believed to be in northern Mali.
Fears were raised Sunday that violence in the region may complicate efforts to free the hostages.
On Sunday, Mali sent more troops into the volatile region following clashes with Tuareg rebels, in which at least eight people, five of them civilians, were killed by landmines and 33 soldiers were abducted by the rebel forces.
But Launsky-Tieffenthal said this had no effect on the negotiations for the time being.
"According to the crisis task force's estimates, these events are separate from the case that we're concerned with," he said.
On Saturday, the son of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, Seif Al-Islam, was quoted as saying that a decision on the hostages could be imminent.
"The negotiations have reached a decisive phase," Austrian far-right politician Joerg Haider told the Austria Press Agency, after a telephone conversation with al-Islam.
"Seif estimates that a decision on the Austrians' fate could fall in the next few hours," he added.
Haider announced earlier in the week that he had enrolled his long-time friend Seif al-Islam to help negotiate the Austrians' release.
He insisted on Sunday that Al-Islam was conducting talks with the kidnappers on his own initiative, after the Kadhafi Foundation, which he runs, denied any involvement in the negotiations.
"This isn't an initiative of the Foundation, but his own," Haider told APA, adding "this is a confidential mission that wasn't arranged with the Austrian foreign ministry either."
Launsky-Tieffenthal said the ministry was in constant contact with Haider.
"The crisis task force welcomes all contacts, political or otherwise that may lead to a quicker resolution," he said.
Vienna has remained tight-lipped about developments in Mali, refusing to confirm that it had requested help from Tripoli.
"For the sake of the hostages' safety and that of the people dealing on the ground, we do not want to give out any operation details," said Launsky-Tieffenthal.
A former Austrian ambassador, Anton Prohaska, has been sent to Bamako to negotiate the hostages' release but Vienna has until now refused to consider paying a ransom as an option.

Date created : 2008-03-24