By Christian Lowe and Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS (Reuters) - Al Qaeda's north African branch is holding the governor of an Algerian desert region kidnapped near the border with Libya, security sources said on Tuesday.
The abduction of the governor, the most senior Algerian official to be kidnapped in years, will reinforce worries that the overthrow of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi has created a zone of instability now being exploited by al Qaeda.
The kidnappers stopped a convoy carrying Mohamed Laid Khelfi, governor of the Illizi region, on Monday afternoon, took him hostage and headed towards the border with Libya, Algeria's state news agency said, citing an Interior Ministry statement.
It did not identify the kidnappers, saying only they were three young Algerians who were known to the authorities.
"All arrangements have been put in place and the appropriate resources have been mobilized at all levels to ensure the governor is freed as quickly as possible," the statement said.
But two Algerian security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the governor was being held by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a group which stages ambushes, suicide bombings and kidnappings in Algeria and neighboring countries that straddle the Sahara desert.
"The governor is in the hands of AQIM, who have already contacted his parents," said one of the officials.
One of the officials said the governor was being held inside Libyan territory a short distance from the spot where he was kidnapped. There was no immediate comment from Libya's government.
"This is a very dangerous escalation which shows that the group (AQIM) is feeling secure and strong because of the chaos in Libya," said Samer Riad, a security expert who runs Algeria's numidianews.com news portal.
Algeria has been fighting an Islamist insurgency for two decades. High-ranking officials have been assassinated but never before kidnapped, mainly because they are almost always escorted by heavily armed security details.
Algeria's government has in the past months raised concerns -- shared by some Western powers -- that the security vacuum in Libya left by Gaddafi's overthrow will provide AQIM with a ready source of weapons and a safe haven from which to launch attacks.
(Additional reporting by Mahmoud Habboush in Tripoli; Editing by Mark Heinrich)