ALGIERS (Reuters) - Al Qaeda took hostage an Algerian regional governor near the Libyan border, security sources said on Tuesday, an incident that will raise new concerns about militants exploiting Libya's security vacuum.
The kidnapping, deep in the Sahara desert, was the most audacious attack on a senior Algerian official in years. One security expert said al Qaeda has been emboldened because its fighters could use Libya, in turmoil since Muammar Gaddafi's overthrow, as a safe haven.
Security sources said later on Tuesday they had information that the governor had been released, but this could not be confirmed.
Mohamed Laid Khelfi, governor of the Illizi region about 1,700 km (1,000 miles) south-east of the Algerian capital, was driving away from a meeting on the Libyan border on Monday afternoon when three armed men stopped his convoy, the Interior Ministry said.
The attackers released his driver and an aide, but took the governor in the direction of the Libyan border, a ministry statement said. He later made telephone contact with his family.
The ministry did not identify the kidnappers, saying only they were young men who were known to the authorities.
"All arrangements have been put in place and the appropriate resources have been mobilized at all levels to ensure the governor is freed as quickly as possible," said the statement, which was carried by the state news agency.
Two Algerian security officials, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the governor had been held by al Qaeda's north African branch, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
"The governor is in the hands of AQIM, who have already contacted his parents," said one of the officials. AQIM carries out kidnappings, ambushes and suicide bombings, mainly in Algeria but also in neighboring states which straddle the Sahara desert.
With backing from Western states which are concerned the group could spread its activities further afield, Algerian security forces have been able to reduce the insurgency to a small rump of fighters hiding out in remote areas.
But the instability in Libya could give AQIM a new lease of life by providing the insurgents with a source of weapons and a safe haven in vast desert tracts which the new Libyan authorities lack the capacity to police.
"This is a very dangerous escalation which shows that the group (AQIM) is feeling secure and strong because of the chaos in Libya," said Samer Riad, a security expert who runs Algeria's numidianews.com news portal.
Western diplomats say Algeria is under serious threat from al Qaeda and is an important ally in helping fight the spread of the insurgency. Some security experts say the al Qaeda threat also helps Algeria garner international support.
The kidnapping was unusual because in Algeria, governors and all other senior government officials almost always travel with heavy security details, making them a "hard" target which the insurgents tend to avoid.
One of the security officials who spoke to Reuters said the governor had on Monday been at Debdeb, a border crossing with Libya, trying to calm down local protesters angry at unemployment and poor living conditions.
Among the protesters were relatives of Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, one of AQIM's leading field commanders in the Sahara desert, the official said.
Abu Zeid is believed by many security experts to have ordered the killings of two foreigners kidnapped by his group, Frenchman Michel Germaneau and Briton Edwin Dyer.
The security official said that the Illizi governor was kidnapped by local people who had been involved in the protest, and was subsequently handed over to insurgents under the command of Abu Zeid.
Additional reporting by Mahmoud Habboush in Tripoli; Editing by Peter Graff