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Monday, March 10, 2008
Al Qaeda claims "kidnappings" in Tunisia
Al Qaeda's north Africa branch says it has kidnapped two Austrian tourists in Tunisia. The claim comes in an audio message, broadcast on Al Jazeera, by a man identifying himself as Salah Abu Mohammed. The message says the hostages are in good health and were taken in retribution for Western co-operation with Israel. It also says that conditions for their release will be announced in due course.

Austria's Foreign Ministry spokesman told CNN they're still trying to investigate "how real the message is" but says they are certainly taking it seriously. Until they are satisfied the pair have been kidnapped, however, they remain classified as missing.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is essentially an Algerian organisation, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (known by its French initials, the GSPC), re-badged under the AQ brand. The group has been blamed for a series of bombings in the last twelve months, including an attack in December on the United Nations offices in Algiers that killed 17 UN staff.

Kidnappings have the effect of frightening off tourists, of course, which is why countries like Tunisia, where tourism plays such a vital economic role, are so keen to avoid them. But that's not generally the motivation behind them. Kidnappings are about money, and western tourists have often been exchanged for sizable sums. When the GSPC kidnapped 32 tourists in southern Algeria in 2003 the total ransoms paid ran into the millions of dollars. A report from the Council on Foreign Relations suggests that money was used to purchase surface-to-air missiles, heavy machine guns, mortars, and satellite-positioning equipment.

From Andrew Carey
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