Qaeda leader: We have US hostage
Islamabad - Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri claims that the terror group is holding hostage a US development worker kidnapped in Pakistan four months ago, according to an online statement seen by monitors.
Warren Weinstein, 70, country director for US-based consultancy JE Austin Associates, was snatched after gunmen tricked their way into his home on August 13, days before he was due to return to the US.
Zawahiri claimed responsibility for the abduction and called on Washington to end air strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, and release the 1993 World Trade Center bombers and relatives of Osama bin Laden, in exchange for Weinstein's release.
"Just as the Americans detain all whom they suspect of links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, even remotely, we detained this man who has been neck-deep in American aid to Pakistan since the 1970s," the SITE Intelligence Group quoted Zawahiri as saying in a 31-minute video sent to jihadist forums.
The video showed no proof of life for Weinstein, but the message appears to be the first significant lead in the case in weeks.
A spokesperson for the US embassy in Islamabad said officials there had seen the statement.
"Investigations are still ongoing. We're in regular contact with the family," she told AFP.
Second-in-command killed in air strike
Pakistani officials were not immediately reachable for comment.
Zawahiri, who took over as leader after bin Laden was killed by US commandos in Pakistan in May, also said his number two, Atiyah abd al-Rahman, was killed in a US air strike in Waziristan in Pakistan's tribal northwest in August.
"The retaliation, with permission from Allah, will be taken against those crusader Westerners who killed him and his two sons, and killed hundreds of thousands of our brothers, sons, women, and sheikhs, and occupied our countries (and) looted our wealth," he said.
US officials announced Rahman's death in August but did not provide details.
A claim of a hostage-taking by al-Qaeda's core structure is seen as rare; such claims by offshoots are far more common.
In January 2002, al-Qaeda-linked groups kidnapped and beheaded American journalist Daniel Pearl, who worked for the Wall Street Journal.
Among the list of eight demands in exchange for Weinstein, al-Qaeda called for the release of "Blind Sheikh" Omar Abdul Rahman, Ramzi Yousef and Sayyid Nosair, who are tied to the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing.
SITE said that Zawahiri directly addressed the hostage's family, telling them that US President Barack Obama had the power to secure Weinstein's release but that he was "dodging" his responsibility.
"He might say to you: 'I sought to release your relative, but al-Qaeda was stubborn.' Do not believe him. He might say to you: 'I tried to contact them and they did not answer.' Do not believe him."
Gunmen kidnapped Weinstein, whose firm does contracting work with the US Agency for International Development, from his home in Lahore.
Weinstein suffers from asthma, heart problems and high blood pressure, and fears have been growing for his health.