An al-Qaida offshoot on Monday claimed responsibility for kidnapping two Italians in Mauritania earlier this month, and Rome's foreign minister said it was likely the hostages were in the hands of the radical Islamist group.
In an audio message broadcast Monday on Al-Arabiya TV news channel, al-Qaida in North Africa spokesman Salah Abou Mohamed said the Dec. 19 kidnapping was a punishment for "crimes committed by the Italian government in Afghanistan and Iraq."
He did not elaborate. Italy currently has 3,150 troops in Afghanistan. It only has 91 troops in Iraq, but at one point Italy's 3,000 troops made Italy the second-largest U.S. coalition partner in Iraq after Britain.
Sergio Cicala and his wife Philopene Kabore were heading from Mauritania to Burkina Faso to see her 12-year-old son when they were taken by gunmen from their 4-wheel drive vehicle. Kabore is an Italian citizen originally from Burkina Faso.
Mauritanian officials said they have arrested and are interrogating a Malian citizen who they think may be responsible.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told the Sky TG24 TV channel that intelligence agencies were still checking the claim, but said it appeared credible.
"We are still verifying this claim," he said. "But it's clearly a likely claim."
Another ministry official, Undersecretary Alfredo Mantica, was more skeptical in an earlier interview, saying he believed the couple had been kidnapped for ransom.
The claim "seems too sophisticated, too political to be inserted in this context," Mantica said, noting that it had come some 10 days after the couple were kidnapped and that the desert area is full of bands of armed men, not all of whom are linked to al-Qaida.
Frattini said he would discuss the situation with local officials during a previously planned visit to Mauritania in early January.
He added that it appeared the men who kidnapped the Italians were part of the same group responsible for the kidnapping of three Spanish aid workers three weeks earlier.
Should the couple be al-Qaida's hands, that would preclude any negotiations, he told Sky.
"Should we say, even once, OK, let's negotiate, we would be legitimizing terrorist organizations," Frattini said.
He said al-Qaida's claim of responsibility reinforced the need for the strict silence that Italian officials have been keeping on the kidnapping.
"If this is really the group that is holding our citizens hostage it would be an extra reason to maintain silence," he said. "These are well-trained groups, used to these kind of actions. Any additional news would endanger the safety of the hostages."
Mauritania, once known as a predominantly moderate Muslim nation on Africa's western coast, has been rocked by attacks by the North African group known as al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb.
Associated Press Writer Nicole Winfield contributed to this report from Rome.