updated 2/18/2009 4:37:51 PM ET 2009-02-18T21:37:51

Al-Qaida's North Africa branch claimed Wednesday it is holding hostage a senior U.N. peace envoy, his aide and four tourists kidnapped in the Sahara Desert in recent weeks.

The 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.

"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-Qaida in North Africa's purported spokesman, Salah Abu Mohammed, told the pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera overnight Wednesday.

The statement's authenticity could not be independently verified, but it was confirmed Wednesday by the SITE intelligence group, a U.S.-based organization that monitors militant messages.

The al-Qaida group did not issue demands, but in the past it has obtained ransoms for Western tourists kidnapped in the Sahara, the world's largest desert.

"The mujahideen will announce later their conditions in exchange for the release of the kidnapped," Abu Mohammed said in the recording.

Member of bin Laden's network
Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa, known by the French language acronym AQMI, is an Algeria-based group that joined Osama bin Laden's terror network in 2006 and conducts dozens of bombings or ambushes each month. It operates mainly in Algeria but is suspected of crossing the country's porous desert borders to spread violence in the rest of northwestern Africa.

The group said all six hostages were abducted in Niger and issued the alleged names of the tourists.

The Swiss government said it was aware of the kidnapping claims, and was involved in securing the tourists' safety. Efforts are being conducted jointly with other European governments with the aim of "allowing the fast and unconditional release of the hostages," Switzerland's foreign affairs ministry said in a statement. A British government spokesman said the claim was being analyzed. Germany declined to comment.

In New York, the U.N. declined to discuss Fowler's case. "We are aware of the reports but we have nothing further to comment," U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe told reporters Wednesday.

No group had previously claimed the tourists' kidnapping. The president of Niger, Mamadou Tandja, has blamed Fowler's abduction on a rebel group from the northern Niger ethnic minority of Tuareg nomads who are battling the government.

Tuareg rebels from the Front For Forces of Redress initially claimed the kidnapping in a statement posted on their Web site, but later retracted that statement, saying its site had been hacked.

Western intelligence officials in Algeria told The Associated Press they believe the U.N. diplomats were initially abducted by local gunmen, bandits or Tuaregs, and later traded to Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa.

Territory of terrorists
It is not clear who first abducted the tourists, but the intelligence officials believed they are now also being held by gunmen aligned with Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa who roam the desert along Algeria's southern borders.

Ransom from kidnappings — along with arms, cigarettes and drug trafficking in the Sahara — have become a main source of revenue for Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa, the intelligence officials said. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the nature of their activities, said the cross-border trafficking appeared to be on the rise and was becoming a major regional security concern.

Algerian authorities have not recently commented on the issue. In a rare public count of abductions, Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni said last year that the country recorded 115 kidnappings "relating to terrorism" or involving demands for ransom in 2007.

Authorities also said this week they had encircled an Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa unit in the south of the Tebessa region, a zone near Algeria's Sahara where 11 people were killed by roadside bombs in recent days. The state-run APS news agency said security forces killed three militants in the area this week.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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