Gaddafi son said mediating over Austrian hostages

( Reuter )- A son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is mediating in the case of two Austrians held by al Qaeda in North Africa and is hopeful they can be freed soon, an Austrian politician was quoted as saying on Saturday.

Saif al-Islam, who heads the Gaddafi Foundation charity, was in touch with the kidnappers, Carinthia governor Joerg Haider told the Austrian news agency APA.

The mediation of Gaddafi's son, who has studied in Austria and is a friend of right-wing populist Haider, raised some hopes for the release of the two Austrian tourists who were seized in Tunisia last month and are reported to be held in northern Mali.

The Algerian-based al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb said it seized them on February 22 and in Web postings on Islamist forums has demanded a ransom and the liberation of 10 militants held in Algeria and Tunisia. It has set a deadline of midnight on Sunday for its demands to be met.

"Negotiations have entered a decisive phase," Haider quoted Saif al-Islam as saying on Saturday, according to APA.

"Saif believes that in the next few days there could be a decision on the fate of the Austrians," Haider said. It was the third time they had spoken in about 10 hours.

Earlier on Saturday, Haider quoted Saif al-Islam as saying: "It is going well."

Saif al-Islam was involved in negotiations last year to free six foreign medics sentenced to death for infecting Libyan children with HIV.

Austria has launched an intense diplomatic campaign to try to obtain the release of Andrea Kloiber, 43, and Wolfgang Ebner, 51, sending a diplomatic envoy to the Malian capital Bamako and seeking the help of regional states like Libya.

The Austrian envoy in Bamako, Anton Prohaska, said on Saturday he remained hopeful the two would be freed unharmed.

"A deadline is a deadline. We hope for the best and we hope that nothing drastic will happen," he told Reuters.

"This is a complex situation and we don't want to speculate about anything and I think it's in the interests of our countrymen to keep mum," he said by phone from Bamako.

Mali's government has been trying to help Austria obtain the release of the two tourists. Local military sources believe they are being held at a Saharan Islamist hideout in Mali's remote northeast region of Kidal that borders with Algeria and Niger.

Al Qaeda has warned that any attempt to launch a military operation to free the captives could result in their death.

In what appeared to be an unrelated incident, Malian Tuareg rebels ambushed an army convoy on Thursday in the north sector of the Kidal region, near the Algerian border.

Three government soldiers were killed and around 20 more were captured by the Tuareg insurgent fighters who fled towards the frontier with Algeria, Malian officers said.

They said fighting flared for a third day on Saturday as government forces tried to prevent the Tuareg rebels from taking their Malian military hostages out of the country.

Envoy Prohaska saw no connection between the Austrian hostages and the clashes to the north of Kidal. "I don't think it has anything to do with us," he told Reuters.

Malian officials say the rebel Tuaregs are fighting the army presence in the remote region to try to maintain control of traditional Saharan smuggling routes between Algeria and Mali.

The nomadic, light-skinned Tuaregs in northern Mali and neighboring Niger have long complained of being marginalized by black-dominated governments ruling far away in the south. They staged an uprising in the former French colonies in the 1990s.

The Niger and Malian governments describe them as bandits involved in arms- and drugs-trafficking.

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