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Video by Philip CROWTHER


Latest update : 2008-11-01

Two Austrians kidnapped by Al Qaeda's North African wing and held for eight months in the Sahara Desert have been freed and are now in the hands of Malian authorities, the Austrian and Malian governments said on Friday.

BAMAKO - Two Austrian hostages held for months by Islamic
militants in the Sahara have been freed and are now in the hands
of Malian authorities, the Austrian and Malian governments said on

Andrea Kloiber, then 43, and Wolfgang Ebner, then 51,
disappeared in February while on holiday in Tunisia and are
believed to have been held by al Qaeda's North African wing in a
remote part of Mali deep in the Sahara.

"Special envoy Anton Prohaska told me today that Wolfgang
Ebner and Andrea Kloiber were set free by their captors last
night after 252 days," Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik
said in a statement.

"They are both under the protection of Mali's army and are
on the way to the capital Bamako," she said.

"I have personally spoken with their family members in
Salzburg and informed them of this very good news," Plassnik

Plassnik flew to Bamako on a charter flight on Friday to
pick up the freed hostages, Austrian news agency APA reported.

A Malian official said the pair were in good health.

"They are on their way to Bamako. They have already left
Douentza and are expected in Bamako this evening. They will be
received by the president," said Seydou Cissouma, spokesman for
Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure's office.



It was not immediately clear how the pair had been freed.

Al Qaeda had warned that any attempt to launch a military
operation to free the captives could result in their death.

Both Cissouma and Austrian Defence Ministry spokesman Answer
Lang said no ransom had been paid for the pair's release.

"I am very glad that the torture of the hostage-taking is
finally over for the two Salzburg citizens," European Union
External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who like
Kloiber and Ebner comes from Salzburg, said in a statement.

Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer said the pair would
receive medical attention in Austria when they arrived.

"I wish them some peace and quiet so that they can work
through the dramatic experience of their captivity and celebrate
being reunited with their families," he said in a statement.

At one point their captors demanded the release of 10
militants being held in Algeria and Tunisia in return for
releasing the pair. Algerian security sources also said earlier
this year that the captors had demanded a ransom.

A deadline for the demands to be met was pushed back several
times in March and April. But after that, public news on the
negotiations went quiet bar occasional assurances from Austrian
officials that the pair were alive and talks were continuing.

"This senseless hostage-taking has brought before our eyes
how people who are completely uninvolved can become victims of
terrorist activities and how important it is to have a close and
solid international contact network to overcome such crises,"
Gusenbauer said.

Date created : 2008-11-01