North Africa's branch of al-Qaida has denied kidnapping 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, purportedly by Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, said the group was focusing its efforts against French and Malian interests and had nothing to do with the October kidnapping of an Italian and two Spanish aid workers in southern Algeria.
The group's statement was reported Thursday by Nouakchott Information Agency, a private news agency that has carried the group's statements before, but its veracity could not be independently confirmed.
"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.
Spain had no comment on the hostages or the al-Qaida statement. Italy's foreign ministry also declined to comment, noting it typically does not discuss ongoing kidnapping cases.
The militant group did claim to have abducted two French tourists from their hotel room in eastern Mali on the night of Nov. 24 and alleged that they were French spies.
A Western counterterrorism official denied that the men, who have been identified as Serge Lazarevic and Philippe Verdon, were intelligence agents. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The statement 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.
Photos purportedly showing the two groups of hostages appeared Friday on the Nouakchott Information agency.
The statement said the kidnappings were carried out in revenge for recent Malian attacks against members of al-Qaida, 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 part of the statement addressed to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and referring to a uranium mining town in Niger where seven French citizens were kidnapped in September by AQIM.
"You are solely responsible for the consequences of their kidnapping." 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. Before last month's rash of abductions, only one person had been snatched by AQIM in Mali.
According to a 2009 State Department cable, the Mali government and al-Qaida apparently had a tacit agreement to leave each other alone, though that appears to have changed now. Malian forces have launched two attacks against the group's hideouts in the Wagadou forest in the past six months.
"It is time you learned your lesson and stop killing mujahedeen and their families to please the impious crusaders," said the part of the statement addressed to the Mali government.
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 who said three different groups were competing to see which 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-Qaida. Some 50 Europeans and Canadians have been kidnapped and ransomed by the group, earning it an estimated $130 million in less than a decade.