Al Qaeda's North African affiliate has claimed custody of two Canadian diplomats and four Europeans recently kidnapped in the West African country of Niger, according to an audio tape broadcast by Arab news network Al Jazeera.
"We announce to the general public that the mujahideen (holy warriors) reserve the right to deal with the six kidnapped according to Islamic Shariah law," al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) spokesman, Salah Abu Mohammed, told Al Jazeera Wednesday.
United Nations special envoy for Niger, Robert Fowler, and his aide Louis Guay, both Canadian diplomats, were kidnapped Dec. 14 in the southern Sahara country.
Four tourists, including two Swiss, a German woman and a British man, were kidnapped by gunmen Jan. 22 near the border in neighboring Mali, their tour operator said.
In its statement broadcast on Al Jareeza, AQMI said it will eventually offer demands for the hostages' release.
Algerian-based Western intelligence officiers told the AP that they believe the two diplomats were first abducted by local gunmen and then traded to AQMI.
Niger has been battling nomadic Tuareg rebels, which a critic told Agence France Presse (AFP) has left the country open to terrorist infiltration.
The group's latest kidnappings show it is extending its reach further south into West Africa. AQMI hopes to unify the disparate jihadist groups across Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, according to AFP, while welcoming newcomers from countries bordering the Sahara: Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, and Eritrea.
Since merging with al Qaeda in 2006, AQMI had been one of the most active terrorist organizations in the world. Based in Algeria, it has conducted large-scale terrorist attacks and kidnappings against Algerian government and Western humanitarian and business organizations. Its most notable attack cames in December 2007 when twin suicide truck bombings rocked the United Nations offices in Algiers, killing approximately 40.