By Tiemoko Diallo
BAMAKO (Reuters) - A son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafiis mediating in the case of two Austrians held by al Qaeda inNorth Africa and is hopeful they can be freed soon, an Austrianpolitician was quoted as saying on Saturday.
Saif al-Islam, who heads the Gaddafi Foundation charity,was in touch with the kidnappers, Carinthia governor JoergHaider told the Austrian news agency APA.
The mediation of Gaddafi's son, who has studied in Austriaand is a friend of right-wing populist Haider, raised somehopes for the release of the two Austrian tourists who wereseized in Tunisia last month and are reported to be held innorthern Mali.
The Algerian-based al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb said itseized them on February 22 and in Web postings on Islamistforums has demanded a ransom and the liberation of 10 militantsheld in Algeria and Tunisia. It has set a deadline of midnighton Sunday for its demands to be met.
"Negotiations have entered a decisive phase," Haider quotedSaif al-Islam as saying on Saturday, according to APA.
"Saif believes that in the next few days there could be adecision on the fate of the Austrians," Haider said. It was thethird 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 tofree six foreign medics sentenced to death for infecting Libyanchildren with HIV.
Austria has launched an intense diplomatic campaign to tryto obtain the release of Andrea Kloiber, 43, and WolfgangEbner, 51, sending a diplomatic envoy to the Malian capitalBamako and seeking the help of regional states like Libya.
The Austrian envoy in Bamako, Anton Prohaska, said onSaturday he remained hopeful the two would be freed unharmed.
"A deadline is a deadline. We hope for the best and we hopethat nothing drastic will happen," he told Reuters.
"This is a complex situation and we don't want to speculateabout anything and I think it's in the interests of ourcountrymen to keep mum," he said by phone from Bamako.
MALI ARMY FIGHTS TUAREG REBELS
Mali's government has been trying to help Austria obtainthe release of the two tourists. Local military sources believethey are being held at a Saharan Islamist hideout in Mali'sremote northeast region of Kidal that borders with Algeria andNiger.
Al Qaeda has warned that any attempt to launch a militaryoperation to free the captives could result in their death.
In what appeared to be an unrelated incident, Malian Tuaregrebels ambushed an army convoy on Thursday in the north sectorof the Kidal region, near the Algerian border.
Three government soldiers were killed and around 20 morewere captured by the Tuareg insurgent fighters who fled towardsthe frontier with Algeria, Malian officers said.
They said fighting flared for a third day on Saturday asgovernment forces tried to prevent the Tuareg rebels fromtaking their Malian military hostages out of the country.
Envoy Prohaska saw no connection between the Austrianhostages and the clashes to the north of Kidal. "I don't thinkit has anything to do with us," he told Reuters.
Malian officials say the rebel Tuaregs are fighting thearmy presence in the remote region to try to maintain controlof traditional Saharan smuggling routes between Algeria andMali.
The nomadic, light-skinned Tuaregs in northern Mali andneighbouring Niger have long complained of being marginalisedby black-dominated governments ruling far away in the south.They staged an uprising in the former French colonies in the1990s.
The Niger and Malian governments describe them as banditsinvolved in arms- and drugs-trafficking.
(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say onthe top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com/)
(Additional reporting by Paul Bolding in Vienna and PascalFletcher in Dakar; Writing by Pascal Fletcher and Paul Bolding;Editing by Giles Elgood)