Two Austrians kidnapped in February while on holiday in Tunisia have been released, officials said Friday, ending an eight-month ordeal and anguished diplomatic attempts to win their freedom.

Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said Wolfgang Ebner and Andrea Kloiber were freed after 252 days in captivity and were under the protection of the military in Mali. It was unclear what circumstances led to the pair's release.

In Mali, presidential spokesman Diarra Diakite confirmed that the Austrians were released Thursday. Diakite said they were being driven Friday from the northeasten town of Douentza to the capital, Bamako.

He did not provide further information on exactly where they were released or who was holding them.

An affiliate of the Islamic militant group Al Qaeda had claimed responsibility for abducting the pair in February.

Plassnik said in a statement that "efforts are under way to organize their speedy and safe return to Austria."

She had visited the region in June as part of a desperate diplomatic effort to secure their release.

Austria's government had feared the worst after three deadlines set by their captors, Al Qaeda in Islamic North Africa, had expired with no sign of the missing couple from Salzburg — and no clear sense of exactly where they were being held.

Plassnik said she had spoken already with Ebner's and Kloiber's relatives, "and I'm pleased that there's a happy ending after all these weeks of concern and uncertainty."

The group had unsuccessfully demanded the release of a Muslim husband and wife from an Austrian jail, as well as pressing Austria to withdraw what it said were four Austrian officers in Afghanistan.

Austria's Defense Ministry said there were only two officers, not four, serving in NATO's force in Afghanistan.