( AFP )- The kidnappers of two Austrians seized in Tunisia and currently thought to be in Mali have extended a Sunday midnight deadline for their demands to be met, the Austrian foreign ministry said.
"We've received notice whereby we now have more time -- beyond the original deadline that would have expired at midnight on Sunday -- for our efforts to secure the release of Wolfgang Ebner and Andrea Kloiber," spokesman Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal told a hastily convened news conference.
"Both families were informed of the latest developments today by Foreign Minister (Ursula) Plassnik," Launsky-Tieffenthal added.
The spokesman said he could not provide any further details, so as not to jeopardise the safety of the hostages or of those trying to free them.
Earlier, Plassnik said every effort was being made to free Ebner, 51, and Kloiber, 44, who were abducted three weeks ago by the Al-Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb -- an Algerian-based offshoot of Al-Qaeda -- as they were vacationing in the Tunisian desert.
"We're working hard and at all levels, together with our partners in the EU and in the region," Plassnik said.
"Top priority is the safe return of the two Austrians. We're working as if Wolfgang Ebner and Andrea Kloiber were our own family members. The aim is to secure their release as quickly as possible," the minister said.
Officially, Vienna has repeatedly stated that it would not negotiate with the kidnappers.
But Plassnik confirmed that a former Austrian ambassador had been sent to Mali.
"A former Austrian ambassador has met with Mali President Amadou Toumani Toure to inform him personally about the case," Plassnik said.
Plassnik did not reveal the envoy's name. But diplomatic sources in Vienna confirmed it is former ambassador Anton Prohaska.
In addition, Plassnik insisted there was still no definite information about where exactly the hostages and their kidnappers were.
In Bamako, the government denied the hostages were in Mali at all.
"We have no information that the hostages are in Malian territory," said General Kafougouna Kone, head of territorial administration.
"I received the Austrian diplomat and told him that. And I told him that as soon as we had any other information, we would inform him," Kone told AFP.
The kidnappers are demanding that Islamists imprisoned in Algeria and Tunisia be released in return for the Austrians' freedom. There has also been speculation about a possible ransom demand.
In Mali, a source close to the negotiations told AFP that the kidnappers "are not opposed" to a payment.
In Salzburg, the hostages' families said they remained "very hopeful" that the two will be released unharmed.
Austrian public radio ORF reported that in addition to the Austrian authorities, the French and German secret services and the Algerian police were in contact with the kidnappers.
The aim was to get the hostage-takers to drop their demands for the release of Islamist prisoners and concentrate on a ransom demand instead, ORF said.
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 the prisoners the kidnappers want released is former soldier Amar Saifi, known as El Para, or The Paratrooper, a leading figure in the Algeria-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which in 2006 allied itself to Al-Qaeda.
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.