Austrian captives taken to Mali: Algerian Web site

( Reuter )- Two Austrian tourists abducted in Tunisia and believed to be held by al Qaeda's north Africa wing have been moved by the kidnappers to Mali, an Algerian newspaper said on its Web site on Tuesday.

Ennahar quoted sources as saying the couple had been taken across the Sahara desert by an armed group from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and reached the Sahel region after a four day journey through the area between Algeria and Libya.

"Ennahar obtained information that the group has already returned to its bases in the Sahel on the territory of the republic of Mali," said the site, which specializes in security.

There was no immediate word from Algerian authorities on the kidnapping of the couple, named by relatives as tax consultant Wolfgang Ebner, 51 and his companion, Andrea Kloiber, 43.

Analysts said the fact the kidnappers had announced the abduction suggested they were ready to negotiate and pointed out that the group had seized hostages to raise money in the past.

In Austria, Ebner's son Bernhard told reporters in Salzburg his first reaction to the news that the pair may be in Mali was one of relief, APA news agency said.

"The first reaction was relief because it was the first sign that they were alive and well, but when you hear of al Qaeda, you swallow hard," he said.

North African states are increasing security cooperation to try to stifle increasingly bold attempts by radical Islamist groups to coordinate attacks on foreign targets in the region.

On Monday al Jazeera television aired an audio recording by a man who identified himself as Salah Abou-Mohammad of al Qaeda who said the group had kidnapped two Austrians in Tunisia on February 22 and would soon announce demands for their release.

A separate al Qaeda statement on Monday suggested the group had since moved the captives to neighboring Algeria, a mostly-desert country the size of western Europe.

A security consultant who watches North Africa said the announcement indicated the kidnappers had moved the captives to a safe place and were now ready to negotiate their release.

"Now that they've gone open, they want it resolved," said an official of UK-based Red Defence International security company who declined to be identified.

"If they wanted to cause a major problem they would just keep quiet, because silence is worse than talking."

Henry Wilkinson, a senior analyst at Janusian Risk Advisory Group, declined to comment on the specific case but noted that the Algerian-based group had used kidnapping in the past for fund raising.

"Kidnapping is a way of raising money," he said, adding there had been reports of dissension in the group, which may have heightened a need among some of its members for funds.

In Vienna, the Austrian government said it was examining a new message on Tuesday from the apparent kidnappers.

Interior ministry spokesman Rudolf Gollia said the message on a Web site overnight included correct passport data for the couple. "It is evidence but not proof," he said.

Foreign ministry spokesman Peter Launsky said "the message ... threatened consequences in the case of military action."

Launsky said close contact was being maintained with the governments of Algeria and Tunisia with a "plea to refrain from possible military action".

Al Qaeda linked its action to an Israeli offensive in Gaza, saying "our folk in Gaza are being slaughtered by the Jews with consent from Western countries."

Israel last week ended an offensive which killed 120 Palestinians in Gaza.

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