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Austria denies ransom in Qaeda hostage release

Video by Philip CROWTHER

Text by REUTERS

Latest update : 2008-11-02

Two Austrians kidnapped by Al Qaeda's North African wing and held for eight months in the Sahara Desert arrived home on Saturday. The Austrian and Malian governments denied reports that a ransom was paid for their release.

Two Austrians freed after being held hostage in the Sahara for months by Islamic militants were exhausted but in good spirits when they arrived back in Austria on Saturday, two days after their release.

Andrea Kloiber, 43, and Wolfgang Ebner, 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 desert area of Mali.

They landed in Vienna late on Saturday without making a public appearance on medical advice. They were taken to a military hospital in the capital by helicopter for medical checks. Officials said they were in relatively good health.

The freed hostages were accompanied by Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik and are expected to travel home to Salzburg after their hospital visit.

“They have very difficult experiences behind them,” Plassnik said at Vienna airport in comments broadcast on television.

“But they are in good spirits, we laughed (on the plane), they can now rediscover their freedom, little by little,” she said, adding that she had been impressed by their composure.

Earlier on Saturday Kloiber, wearing traditional Malian dress and a yellow turban, and Ebner, in khaki trousers and a black tee-shirt, appeared at a brief news conference in Bamako before being driven to the airport.

“We are happy to be Austrians and our compatriots can’t imagine how secure their lives are in Austria, and what the rest of the world lives like,” Ebner said.

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 them could result in their death.

Some media have reported a ransom was paid, despite denials by the Austrian and Malian governments.

“Mali has not received a single penny from Austria for any transaction, Mali has not paid anything in any transaction,” Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure told the news conference.

“A ransom payment definitely did not come from Austria,” said Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal.

“The next time you come to Mali on holiday, stick to Bamako and (smaller town) Segou,” Mali’s Toure told Ebner before the pair left for home.

Date created : 2008-11-02

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