Qaeda denies Sahara kidnappings
Rabat - North Africa's branch of al-Qaeda denied it has kidnapped three foreign aid workers in Algeria, but confirmed it was behind two other kidnappings in Mali, according to a statement carried by a Mauritanian news agency.
The statement said the group was focusing its efforts against French and Malian interests and had nothing to do with the October kidnapping of Spanish and Italian aid workers in southern Algeria.
The group's statement was carried on Thursday by Nouakchott Information Agency.
"We deny all responsibility in the kidnapping of Europeans from the camp in Tindouf," the statement said, referring to a refugee camp in Algeria for those fleeing the conflict in the Western Sahara, where the local population is agitating for independence from Morocco.
The militant group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of two French tourists from their hotel room in eastern Mali on the night of November 24 and alleged that they were French spies.
It also claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of a Dutch, Swedish and South African national from a restaurant in Timbuktu the next day. A German national was executed when he refused to get into a waiting truck.
Sarkozy, you are responsible’
The statement said the kidnappings were carried out in revenge for recent Malian attacks against members of al-Qaeda, as well as France's aggression in the Sahel region - a possible reference to French military strikes against the militants.
"Here are two more French to be added to those from Arlit," said the statement referring to a uranium mining town where seven French citizens were kidnapped in September.
"You are solely responsible for the consequences of their kidnapping," the statement added, addressing French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Four of those from the Arlit kidnapping are still being held.
The kidnappings in Mali indicate that the group is moving into areas which it previously had left alone. This comes after Malian government launched a number of operations against the militant group, in co-operation with France and the US.
"It is time you learned your lesson and stop killing mujahedeen and their families to please the impious crusaders," the statement said.
Kidnappings earn group $130m
The spike in kidnappings in the Sahel region could also be related to competition between different factions of militants.
An Algerian daily last month carried an interview with two captured militants that said three different groups were competing with each other on who could kidnap more foreigners.
AQIM grew out of armed Islamic groups fighting the Algerian government in the 1990s and eventually expanded its operations to the lightly populated empty wastes of the Sahel region where they made money on smuggling and kidnapping.
In 2006, the group announced it had joined al-Qaeda. Some 50 Europeans and Canadians have been kidnapped and ransomed by the group, earning it an estimated $130m in less than a decade.