al qaida video .
(photo credit: AP via IntelCenter)
Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa claimed responsibility for kidnapping two Austrian tourists last month in Tunisia in an audio recording aired Monday on Al-Jazeera television.
A man who identified himself as Salah Abu Mohammed said in the recording that the terrorist group kidnapped the two Austrians on Feb. 22 in retribution for Western cooperation with Israel, but said the hostages were in good health.
"We tell Western tourists that at the same time they are flowing into Tunisian lands seeking joy, our brothers are being slain in Gaza by the Jews with the collaboration of the Western states," said Abu Mohammed. "The mujahideen have previously warned and alerted them that the apostate Tunisian state cannot and will not be able to protect you, and the hands of the mujahideen can reach you wherever you are on the Tunisian soil."
Abu Mohammed identified the two hostages as a female nurse and a man working as a consultant.
Austrian media have identified the missing individuals as 51-year-old Wolfgang Ebner and his girlfriend, 43-year-old Andrea Kloiber.
In Vienna, Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Gaertner could not confirm the hostage-taking but said authorities would ask Al-Jazeera for a copy of the tape so they could analyze and verify it. He said Austria's foreign and interior ministries have created a joint crisis squad to deal with the matter, adding that authorities have not received any demands or been contacted by the alleged kidnappers. Gaertner declined to give the names of the missing Austrians.
The Tunisian government confirmed Monday the disappearance of the Austrian tourists but said it had no evidence the two were still on Tunisian soil.
The government said in a statement that security forces conducted an air and ground-based search for the two upon learning of their disappearance. The statement did not say when the government learned of the disappearance.
"There is no evidence that would allow us to confirm the presence of the two Austrians on Tunisian soil or allow us to confirm they were kidnapped inside Tunisian territory," the statement said.
It confirmed the two entered Tunisia via the port city of La Goulette on Feb. 10 and that they were to travel to the Saharan region, near the borders with Libya and Algeria.
The statement said it appeared they may have left Tunisian territory during their trip.
The Washington-based SITE Institute, which monitors militant Islamic Web sites, also reported the claim by al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa, saying it was posted on jihadist Internet forums. The terrorist group warned Austria that any action by Algeria to free the hostages would put their lives at risk, according to a copy of the statement SITE provided to The Associated Press.
Johann Froehlich, the Austrian ambassador to Tunisia, said in a TV interview with broadcaster ORF on Monday that he had just met with Tunisian Foreign Ministry officials about the case but could not confirm the media reports.
The Austrian government said last week that two Austrian tourists had been missing in Tunisia since mid-February. The Foreign Ministry said at the time that both were from Salzburg, and described them as a 51-year-old man and a 40- to 45-year-old woman.
Officials said the tourists hadn't been heard from since they placed a phone call from the Matmata area in southern Tunisia. Authorities said the missing couple was driving a Jeep with Austrian license plates when they disappeared in the North African country.