Austria seeks Libyan help to free kidnapped tourists

Austria sought international help on Monday to free two nationals seized three weeks ago in Tunisia after the kidnappers, a group linked to al-Qaeda, extended their deadline for a proposed prisoner swap.

The Austrian daily Kurier reported that the abductors from the al-Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb were now demanding a ransom of €5-million ($7,9-million).

An internet statement posted late on Monday in the name a al-Qaeda said the group had extended its ultimatum for the release of prisoners in exchange for two tourists until next weekend.

But it warned that “any attempt to free the hostages by force will result in failure” and trigger the “immediate execution of the hostages”.

The authenticity of the statement however could not be verified.

Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer meanwhile reportedly called Libyan leader Moammar Gadaffi to help, according to Austrian and Libyan media.

In Tripoli, the official news agency Jana reported that Gusenbauer and Kadhafi had broached “a number of topics of common interest” in a phone call.

The Austrian chancellor’s spokesperson, Stefan Poettler, refused to confirm whether Gadaffi had been approached but stated that authorities “have approached several international leaders, including those in the region” where the pair were kidnapped.

Officially, Vienna has repeatedly stated that it would not negotiate with the kidnappers, but former Austrian ambassador Anton Prohaska has been sent to Mali and met Sunday with President Amadou Toumani Toure.

Austrian foreign ministry spokesperson Martin Gaertner confirmed contact with Libyan authorities but did not spell out if Gadaffi had been approached.

The hostages were last believed to be in the desert north of the landlocked Sahel nation, but Malian authorities have not confirmed this report.

A Libyan diplomat in Mali’s capital Bamako said Monday that Tripoli had been asked to help and would do so.

“My country has been solicited by Austria to participate in the release of the two hostages and we shall do all we can to see that the hostages recover their freedom,” said the diplomat, asking not to be named.

Sources close to the case said Libya has established contact with the kidnappers “in the vast Sahara” and that a foundation run by Gadaffi’s son was involved.

This foundation participated in negotiations to free Dutch, German and Swiss tourists kidnapped in the Sahara in 2003.

Wolfgang Ebner (51) and Andrea Kloiber (44) were abducted on February 22 as they were vacationing in the Tunisian desert.

Originally, the kidnappers had given the Austrian government until midnight on Sunday to secure the release of a number of Islamists imprisoned in Algeria and Tunisia in exchange for the Austrians’ freedom.

But the deadline was extended at the last minute amid reports that talks were switching focus to a possible ransom.

The hostages’ families expressed relief at the deadline’s extension.

“We’re pleased that the chances are now better that Andrea and Wolfgang will be freed,” said Kloiber’s month, Christine Lenz.

The Algerian newspaper Annahar reported that the mother of one of the presumed kidnappers has urged her son to free the two Austrians.

“I call on my son, if he really is responsible for the kidnapping of the tourists, to release them because they are innocent,” said Fatima Hamadou, mother of alleged kidnap chief Abu Zaid.

Among prisoners the kidnappers want released is Amar Saifi, known as El Para, or the Paratrooper, a leading figure in the Algeria-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).

The GSPC in 2006 allied itself to al-Qaeda, forming a North African—or Maghreb—branch.

Saifi, who was allegedly behind the 2003 abduction of 32 Dutch, German and Swiss tourists, was captured in Chad and returned to Algeria, where he is awaiting trial. - AFP


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