Deadline for Austrian Hostages Passes

VIENNA, Austria (AP) -- The latest deadline set by an al-Qaida affiliate for authorities to release jailed militants in return for two Austrian tourists kidnapped in North Africa expired Sunday with no word on the fate of the hostages.

Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa had given authorities until midnight to free some of its members in jails in Tunisia and Algeria in exchange for Wolfgang Ebner and Andrea Kloiber, who went missing while on vacation in Tunisia in February.

Two previous deadlines expired March 16 and 23.

Earlier Sunday, Austrian authorities, who had not confirmed they have received a final ultimatum directly, appeared confident that they would have enough time to free the hostages unharmed. For weeks now, they have worked diplomatic contacts in the hope of securing the couple's freedom.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal said Sunday afternoon that authorities felt that more time was available. He said efforts to secure the release of the couple were continuing.

The pair's exact location remains unclear. Media reports have placed them near the Algerian border in the West African nation of Mali and Austrian officials have been in the country's capital, Bamako, for some time.

A former Austrian ambassador, Anton Prohaska, has been leading release the efforts in Mali. Prohaska said in televised remarks Sunday evening that he and Malian authorities believed they had enough time to work toward the release of the couple.

However, in a March 24 online statement, al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa described the new deadline as a final extension. Previously, the kidnappers warned that any attempt to free the hostages would result in their execution.

The group first said on March 10 in an audio recording that it kidnapped the two on Feb. 22 because of Western cooperation with Israel. The statement claimed the hostages were in good health.

In an interview Sunday with the daily Kurier newspaper, Ebner's adult son, Bernhard, seemed optimistic that his father and Kloiber were being treated well by their captors and was not worried that anything major would happen if the latest deadline expired.

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