ROME (Reuters) - Al Qaeda’s North African wing said on Monday it was responsible for the kidnapping this month of an Italian couple in Mauritania, Al Arabiya television reported.
Salah Abu Mohamed, a spokesman for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, said in an audiotape recorded on December 27 the seizure of the Italians was connected to the “crimes of the Italian government in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Al Arabiya said.
The television channel posted on its website a photograph of the couple surrounded by armed men.
Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the claim by Al Qaeda appeared “plausible,” based on Italian and foreign intelligence reports. He said he would travel to Mauritania in January to press for the release of the couple.
Italy’s government said the report would not affect efforts to secure their release, whose bullet-ridden car was discovered on December 19 in eastern Mauritanian, an area where armed groups with links to al Qaeda are known to operate.
“I don’t think this changes anything with respect to the efforts which are underway,” Alfredo Mantica, undersecretary for foreign affairs, told Sky Italia television.
Mantica said kidnappings in the area were usually a question of ransom, rather than ideology.
Italy has said it is using all political and diplomatic channels to secure the release of the couple, identified as Sergio Cicala, 65, and his 39-year-old wife Philomene Kabouree, who is from Burkina Faso and has dual Italian nationality.
In early December, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb also said it was responsible for the kidnapping in late November of three Spanish aid workers in Mauritania and one Frenchman in Mali.
Analysts say local gangs involved in the smuggling of cigarettes, weapons, drugs and people may kidnap foreigners and sell them to al Qaeda. They suspect all the Europeans have been smuggled into Mali’s lawless, remote north.
Although never officially confirmed, experts say ransoms are often paid, but a British hostage was executed in Mali by the group this year.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in Algeria and several other countries in the region.
It has extended its territory in recent years to include Mauritania, at the western end of the Sahara desert. In December 2007 it killed four French tourists, prompting the cancellation of off-road automobile race the Dakar Rally in 2008.
Reporting by Daniel Flynn in Rome and Rania Oteify in Dubai; Editing by Louise Ireland