Al Qaeda's branch for North Africa on Thursday set a three-day deadline to meet conditions for the release of two Austrian tourists it claimed to have kidnapped in Tunisia last month.
In a statement posted on the Internet - which included six photographs purportedly showing Austrians Wolfgang Ebner and Andrea Kloiber - al Qaeda in Islamic North Africa said it would free the pair if all of the group's members were released from jails in Tunisia and Algeria. The posting gave Austrian authorities three days, starting midnight Thursday, to comply.
The statement, the authenticity of which could not be independently verified although it was posted on a Web site linked to the group, also called on Western tourists to avoid visiting the Maghreb region in northern Africa.
"Austria is responsible for the lives of the two hostages in the event of the expiration of the time period and not responding to our demands," it said and urged families of the two Austrians to pressure their government to meet the group's demands.
The woman in the photographs, said to be Kloiber, was shown wearing a headscarf and her face was obscured. According to extremist Islamist beliefs, showing a woman's face in public and in images is prohibited. Both she and the man, who had a graying mustache and a short beard, were wearing traditional Arab robes.
The statement also said the Austrian government has been informed of the kidnappers' demands and that they had handed over to unnamed "negotiators" a list of detained members they want released. There were no details on how many names were listed.
"You are interested in the safety of your citizens," the group said, addressing Austria. "We are also interested in the release of our brothers."
On Monday, the al Qaeda branch first said in an audio recording that it was behind the Feb. 22 kidnapping of the two tourists, saying it was an act of retribution for Western cooperation with Israel. The statement claimed the hostages were in good health.
Relatives reported the pair missing when they did not return from a vacation to Tunisia on March 1. The two were last heard from on Feb. 18 and failed to make a planned phone call to Ebner's son on Feb. 25.