updated 3/10/2008 5:56:46 PM ET 2008-03-10T21:56:46

Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa claimed responsibility for kidnapping two Austrian tourists last month in Tunisia in an audio recording aired Monday on Al-Jazeera television.

A man who identified himself as Salah Abu Mohammed said in the recording that the terrorist group kidnapped the two Austrians on Feb. 22 in retribution for Western cooperation with Israel, but said the hostages were in good health.

"We tell Western tourists that at the same time they are flowing into Tunisian lands seeking joy, our brothers are being slain in Gaza by the Jews with the collaboration of the Western states," said Abu Mohammed.

"The mujahideen have previously warned and alerted them that the apostate Tunisian state cannot and will not be able to protect you, and the hands of the mujahideen can reach you wherever you are on the Tunisian soil."

Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Gaertner could not confirm the hostage-taking but said authorities would ask Al-Jazeera for a copy of the tape so they could analyze and verify its authenticity.

No demands made
Gaertner also said a large-scale search has been under way since the two Austrians were reported missing. He said authorities have not received any demands nor been contacted by the alleged kidnappers.

The Washington-based SITE Institute, which monitors militant Islamic Web sites, also reported the claim by al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa, saying it was posted on jihadist Internet forums.

The two Austrian tourists were identified as Wolfgang Ebner and Andrea Kloiber in the al-Qaida statement, a copy of which SITE provided to The Associated Press. Austrian media have identified Ebner as a 51-year-old tax consultant from the town of Hallein, and said 43-year-old Kloiber is his girlfriend.

Johann Froehlich, the Austrian ambassador to Tunisia, said in a TV interview with broadcaster ORF on Monday that he had just met with Tunisian Foreign Ministry officials about the case but could not confirm the media reports.

Gaertner also declined to give the names of the missing tourists.

The Austrian government said last week that two Austrian tourists had been missing in Tunisia since mid-February. Officials said the tourists hadn't been heard from since they placed a phone call from the Matmata area in southern Tunisia.

Authorities said the missing couple was driving a Jeep with Austrian license plates when they disappeared in the North African country.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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