Libya makes contact with Austrian hostage-takers: diplomat

Libya makes contact with Austrian hostage-takers: diplomat

BAMAKO, March 18, 2008 (AFP) — Libya has established contact with the kidnappers of two Austrian tourists who were snatched in Tunisia by a North African offshoot of Al-Qaeda, a diplomat in the Malian capital said Tuesday.

« I have just learnt that Libya was able, via intermediaries, to establish a contact with the abductors of the two hostages, » a diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity. Contact reportedly took place overnight Monday.

« Negotiations are continuing » he said, adding: « The hostages appear well. »

Wolfgang Ebner, 51, and Andrea Kloiber, 44, were abducted February 22 while on holiday in the Tunisian desert.

The Austrian government on Monday confirmed it had sought local help in the affair from North African leaders, with the official state Libyan news agency saying Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer called Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.

« There are contacts from Vienna in the countries in the region … and Libya is part of that, » said Martin Gertner, a spokesman for the Austrian foreign ministry.

In a statement posted online on Monday, the group claiming to hold the pair — the Algeria-based Al-Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb — agreed to extend the deadline for their demands to be met until March 23, but threatened to kill the hostages should there be efforts to free them by force.

Austrian media reported the group wanted a five million euro (7.9 million dollar) ransom.

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

Sources close to the case said a foundation run by Kadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, was now involved in the case.

The foundation helped secure the release of more than a dozen Malian soldiers earlier this month and also participated in negotiations to free Dutch, German and Swiss tourists kidnapped in the Sahara in 2003.

Austria’s former ambassador to Paris, Anton Prohaska, is in Bamako to handle the case, as a « special envoy » from the government in Vienna.

He met with the Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure on Sunday for face-to-face talks on the investigation.