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Tricky dealings in hostage case

By BBC| 2008

More than a month after their disappearance, the fate of two Austrian hostages who were captured while touring the Tunisian desert remains shrouded in uncertainty. But the case has been seen to expose the difficulty of controlling the vast expanses of the Sahara as al-Qaeda's North Africa affiliate seeks to make its presence felt across the Maghreb. The group, which was blamed for a number of spectacular suicide bombings in Algeria last year, has raised its profile once more after claiming the kidnapping. It is now thought to be holding Wolfgang Ebner, 51, and Andrea Kloiber, 43, at an undisclosed location in northern Mali. According to statements posted on the internet, the kidnappers have demanded that militants held in Algeria and Tunisia be freed in return for the release of the Austrians. They have twice deferred a deadline, stating most recently that their request must be met by 6 April. There have been unconfirmed reports that the group is also asking for a ransom. Seeking headlines The al-Qaeda Organisation in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emerged from the remnants of the Islamist insurgency that began in Algeria in the 1990s. It adopted its current name early last year as - after years of being worn down by the Algerian security forces - it began to scale up bombings and increase its flow of propaganda. But recent attacks had been largely restricted to northern Algeria. Map of the Maghreb area Jean-Francois Daguzin, a senior research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, said that last month's kidnapping showed the group was trying to spread its influence, drawing together smaller militant factions from across the region. "The desire is to create an insurrectional space, and to attract attention by targeting foreigners," he said.

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