Several “deadlines” for demands to be met have come and gone — the most recent, as far as I can discover, was April 6th — and yet Mr. Ebner and Ms. Kloiber are still alive.
However, the same thing can’t be said of all the people mediating their release. According to the latest news from Reuters, three of the intermediaries negotiating for the release of the hostages have been killed by Tuareg tribesmen:
Austria said on Thursday it was continuing to work to free two Austrians held hostage by al Qaeda in the Sahara region, despite reports that an intermediary negotiating their release had been shot dead.
The Algerian daily El Khabar on Wednesday quoted an unnamed security source as saying that a Malian intermediary had been killed about a week ago near the Algerian-Malian border.
A spokesman for the Austrian Foreign Ministry said he could not confirm the report, but that efforts to save Andrea Kloiber, 43, and Wolfgang Ebner, 51, were continuing.
“There has not been any interruption to our efforts to save the hostages as the report suggests,” Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal said, adding that no new deadline had been set by the abductors.
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On Thursday, El Khabar quoted a former Malian rebel leader, Hassan Fagaga, as saying three mediators had been killed. He said they were Touareg tribesmen.
El Khabar and another Algerian newspaper, Ennahar, said negotiations for the release of the Austrians with a group whose leader they named as Abdelhamid abu Zeid had been postponed because of the killings.
The couple disappeared in February while on holiday in Tunisia. Al Qaeda’s North African wing said it had kidnapped them, and demanded the release of 10 Islamic militants held in Tunisia and Algeria. Security sources in Algeria said it also wanted a cash ransom.
An al Qaeda statement posted on the Internet last Monday said the group was now only seeking the release of a Muslim couple held in Austria, and that Austria was responsible for the fate of its citizens after a deadline expired. But it was not clear if this statement came from the captors.
One suspects that there is more going on here than meets the eye.
Al Qaeda has lowered its demands. At one time they had demanded millions of dollars and the release of terrorist prisoners in Tunisia and Algeria. Now the only requirement is that two Muslims in an Austrian prison be released — a demand which Austria, at least in theory, could actually meet.
And now three of the mediators are dead. Is this a battle between rival factions who don’t want to subdivide their slices of the pie? An operation by one of the intelligence services? Or something else?
This story just gets murkier and murkier.
Hat tip: insubria.