(Adds Canadian military in Mali, detail)
By Tiemoko Diallo
BAMAKO, Jan 29 (Reuters) - A North African branch of al Qaeda is most likely holding four European tourists kidnapped in northeastern Mali last week, a senior Malian military source involved in the investigation told Reuters on Thursday.
Malian officials initially blamed Tuareg rebels for abducting the two Swiss nationals, one German and one Briton near Mali’s border with Niger last Thursday.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), was the most likely group to be holding the Europeans, the source said.
"We are convinced they are Salafists," he said. "The taking of hostages is their method — the German hostages in 2003, the two Austrian hostages — it’s them."
Last week’s kidnapping was the worst such incident in the West African desert state since Islamist rebels abducted 32 Europeans in 2003. They were released after several months. In October 2008, two Austrian tourists were released in Mali after being held in the Sahara for months, also by Islamist militants.
"Salafists are offering enormous sums of money to any terrorist group who brings them white Westerners, but with the twin conditions that they are not American nationals and they are not captured on Malian territory."
Al Qaeda was wary of provoking an armed response from the United States and did not want to anger Malian authorities, the military source said. Prominent Islamists from North Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan sheltered in the hills around Kidal in northeastern Mali, he said.
The four Europeans were returning from a Tuareg cultural festival when armed men took them from their vehicles near the town of Menaka and drove them into Niger.
In December, a Canadian U.N. diplomat, Robert Fowler, and his Canadian aide went missing in Niger. A Tuareg dissident rebel group first claimed, then denied, their abduction.
Officials in Niger said earlier this month that "armed Islamist groups" might be holding them.
The Malian source said two Canadian military officers had been in Mali since the start of January to search for the missing men.
"They believe Mali is the Islamists’ base, so they have come to seek the support of our security sources in finding the hostages," he said.
The Swiss and German Foreign Ministries have confirmed that two and one of their nationals respectively were abducted in Mali last week, but did not comment on possible al Qaeda involvement, while the British Foreign Office has not confirmed that a Briton was abducted. (Writing and additional reporting by Daniel Magnowski in Dakar; Additional reporting by Kerstin Gehmlich in Berlin and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Louise Ireland)