NOUAKCHOTT An Italian couple has been kidnapped in eastern Mauritania, Italian state television said on Saturday, and their bullet-riddled vehicle was found near the border with Mali.
The couple's driver, from Ivory Coast, also was missing, a local journalist said.
There was no official confirmation by the Mauritanian authorities but the couple's vehicle was found in an area where armed groups with links to al Qaeda are known to operate.
Local diplomats and a journalist said the attack appeared to be the latest in a string of kidnappings in the region.
Italian state television said a 65-year-old man and his 39-year-old wife were kidnapped and their minibus found riddled with bullets, without citing its sources for the report.
"We don't have confirmation that this was a kidnap, but everything seems to point to that hypothesis," Patrick Mura, an official at the Italian embassy in Dakar, told the state channel.
A diplomat in Mauritania told Reuters the incident seemed "more and more" like a kidnapping but it was not clear who was responsible.
Malian security forces have been put on high alert by their Mauritanian counterparts, who reported a kidnapping and warned that the gunmen may attempt to smuggle their hostages across the border, Malian government officials said.
Armed groups, some of them with links to al Qaeda's wing in the region, operate across the vast, remote desert zone, which includes eastern Mauritania, northern Mali and southern Algeria.
Analysts say local gangs, generally involved in the smuggling of cigarettes, weapons, drugs and people, are starting to consider kidnapping foreigners and selling them on to the Islamist group operating in the region.
Italy's foreign ministry has said it was checking the report. The pair were believed to be traveling to Mali.
NEAR AL QAEDA BASE
Several local journalists said residents near Kobenni, a town eight km (five miles) from the border with Mali, heard gunfire on Friday evening close to where the couple's vehicle was found.
Isselmou Ould Mustafa, a journalist who specializes in security matters for Tahalil, a Mauritanian weekly newspaper, said the couple's driver, from Ivory Coast, also disappeared and the car was riddled with bullet holes, pointing to a kidnapping.
"They were taken by armed men ... this bears all the marks of al Qaeda as the kidnapping, once again, took place at night and the al Qaeda bases are just a few kilometers, as the bird flies, from where the seizure took place," he added.
Although never officially confirmed, experts say ransoms are often paid, but a British hostage was executed in Mali by the group earlier this year.
Three Spanish aid workers disappeared in Mauritania last month after an attack on their convoy. Malian security sources believe the trio is being held by al Qaeda's north African wing in Malian territory.
(Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako; Silvia Aloisi in Rome: Writing by David Lewis; editing by Michael Roddy)