Al Qaeda gives Austria ultimatum on hostages’ release

Al Qaeda’s North African wing said on Thursday it had given Austria three days to secure the release of some of its members held in Algeria and Tunisia in return for two Austrian hostages it was holding. The group said in a statement posted on an Islamist Web site that it had informed the Austrian government of the ultimatum which will start at midnight on Thursday, without giving a time zone. “Austria would be responsible for the lives of the two hostages should the deadline come and our demands are not met,” it said, adding that the demands and a list of the names of the prisoners were sent to Vienna through unidentified mediators. The group posted pictures of the man and woman, whom it says it seized on February 22, surrounded by armed militants in a desert area. The face of the woman who wore a blue head scarf was digitally blurred, apparently to abide with an austere interpretation of Islam which says women should cover their faces. Inal Ersan and by Mark Heinrich in Vienna