March 15, 2008 / 2:01 PM / 10 years ago

Web site says Austrians held near Mali town as talks begin

ALGIERS (Reuters) - Al Qaeda is in talks with an Austrian envoy about the possible release of two Austrian hostages held in northern Mali, an Algerian Web site that specialises in security matters reported on Saturday.

The Web site of the daily Ennahar said the two were being held by a group led by Algerian militant Abdelhamid abu Zeid at an al Qaeda base about 150 km (95 miles) from Kidal town.

A senior Austrian envoy had arrived in Mali’s capital, Bamako, and had started negotiations by telephone with the kidnappers, who are demanding a ransom as well as the liberation of 10 militants held in Algeria and Tunisia, the Web site said.

Al Qaeda had demanded the release of the militants within three days from midnight on Thursday.

In Vienna, Foreign Ministry officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the report of talks. Austrian officials have said they would not negotiate with terrorists.

The captives, Andrea Kloiber, 43, and Wolfgang Ebner, 51, went missing in Tunisia last month and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb said it seized them on February 22.

“Negotiations are going on but some demands are within the Algerian authorities’ jurisdiction and Austria cannot get involved in it or negotiate about it,” Ennahar quoted one of its sources as saying, referring to the Islamists’ demand for the release of the militants.

Mali straddles the Sahara and the arid Sahel belt to the south, a region roamed by smugglers, rebel groups and nomads.

Al Qaeda’s north Africa wing, which changed its name last year from the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), has long been involved in smuggling, money laundering and protection rackets in the region.

Ennahar, which has good security contacts, said the camp where the Austrians were being held was the rear base of the GSPC commander for southern Algeria, Yahia Abou Ammar.

The camp is in a part of northern Mali that is usually controlled by a Tuareg tribe called El Barabich, it said.

MOTHER APPEALS

Contacted by Reuters, the mother of alleged kidnap chief abu Zeid urged him to free the hostages.

“I call on my son, if he really is responsible for the kidnapping of the tourists, to release them because they are innocent,” Fatima Hamadou, 62, said by telephone from Zaouia Abidia village 500 km (312 miles) southwest of Algiers.

“I am poor, old and sick. I need support and assistance and I do not understand why my son is doing what he is doing. The foreigners are innocent and should be saved.”

Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer on Friday appealed to al Qaeda’s north Africa wing to release the two but said he had no intention of yielding to the hostage-takers’ demands.

The leader of Austria’s Muslim community, Anas Schakfeh, urged the hostages’ release. “This imprisonment of innocent people breaches the Islamic principle of mercy, tolerance and hospitality,” he said in a statement issued by the community.

After the kidnapping, al Qaeda warned Western tourists not to visit Tunisia. A subsequent statement expanded the warning to include other Maghreb states — Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria.

In the first reaction by the Algerian government to the abduction, Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem told state news agency APS Algeria was not directly involved in the case but added the country was “in contact with all countries in the framework of the fight against terrorism.”

A security source in Algeria said on Friday that among the jailed militants whose release was being sought was Amari Saifi, an Algerian guerrilla chief more popularly known as Abderrazak el Para who abducted 32 Europeans for several months in 2003.

Reporting by Lamine Chikhi, Hamid Ould Ahmed; Writing by William Maclean, editing by Sami Aboudi

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