Report: Al-Qaida denies Sahara kidnappings

By PAUL SCHEMM | December 9, 2011 | 6:20 AM EST

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — North Africa's local branch of al-Qaida denied it has kidnapped three foreign aid workers in Algeria, but confirmed it abducted two French nationals in Mali, according to a statement carried by a Mauritanian news agency.

The statement purportedly by Al-Qaida in North Africa appeared Thursday in the Nouakchott Information Agency and said it was focusing its efforts against French and Malian interests and so had nothing to do with the October kidnapping of Spanish and Italian aid workers in southern Algeria.

The statement could not be independently verified, but the ANI, a private news agency, has been used by Al-Qaida to carry its statements before.

"We deny all responsibility in the kidnapping of Europeans from the camp in Tindouf," the statement said, referring to a refugee camp in Algeria for those fleeing the conflict in the Western Sahara, where the local population is agitating for independence from Morocco.

The militant group said it kidnapped two French tourists from their hotel room in eastern Mali on the night of Nov. 24.

It also claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of a Dutch, Swedish and South African national from a restaurant in Timbuktu the next day. One, a German national, was executed when he refused to get into a waiting truck.

The statement said the kidnappings were carried out in revenge for recent Malian attacks against members of al-Qaida, as well as France's aggression in the Sahel region — a possible reference to French military strikes against the militants.

"Here are two more French to be added to those from Arlit," said the statement referring to a uranium mining town where seven French citizens were kidnapped in September. "You are solely responsible for the consequences of their kidnapping," the statement added, addressing French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Four of those from the Arlit kidnapping are still being held.

AQIM grew out of armed Islamic groups fighting the Algerian government in the 1990s and eventually expanded its operations to the lightly populated empty wastes of the Sahel region where they made money on smuggling and kidnapping.

In 2006, the group announced it had joined al-Qaida. Some 50 Europeans and Canadians have been kidnapped and ransomed by the group.