CAIRO, Egypt, (AP) – Al-Qaeda 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 mujahedeen 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 mujahedeen can reach you wherever you are on the Tunisian soil.”
Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Gaertner said authorities would ask Al-Jazeera for a copy of the tape so they could analyze and verify its authenticity. He said a large-scale search had been under way since the two Austrians were reported missing.
Gaertner also said Austrian authorities had not received any demands or been contacted by the alleged kidnappers.
The Tunisian government said Monday that security forces had conducted an unsuccessful air and ground search for the two tourists upon learning of their disappearance, and found no evidence the two were still on Tunisian soil.
The government said they entered Tunisia via the port city of La Goulette on Feb. 10 and planned to travel to the Saharan region, near the borders with Libya and Algeria. The statement said it appeared the pair may have left Tunisian territory during their trip.
“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 government statement said.
The Washington-based SITE Institute, which monitors militant Islamic Web sites, also reported the claim by al-Qaeda in Islamic North Africa, saying it was posted on jihadist Internet forums.
The two Austrian tourists were identified as Wolfgang Ebner and Andrea Kloiber in the al-Qaeda statement, a copy of which SITE provided to The Associated Press. Austrian media have identified Ebner as a 51-year-old tax consultant from the town of Hallein, and said 43-year-old Kloiber is his girlfriend.
Gaertner declined to give the names of the missing tourists.
The Austrian government said last week that two Austrian tourists had been missing in Tunisia since mid-February. 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.