Algerian rebel group claims kidnapping of two Austrians in Tunisia

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

An Algerian rebel group that has pledged its allegiance to Al-Qaeda announced on Monday that it had kidnapped two Austrians vacationing in Tunisia on February 22, 2008.

The statement was read by Salah Abou-Mohammad, a spokesman for the Islamist group which last January announced it was redefining itself as "Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb".

"A squadron of heroic mujahideen was able to infiltrate deep into the Tunisian state and succeeded in kidnapping two Austrian tourists," Abou-Mohammed said. "The two kidnapped are in good health and are being treated well in keeping with the teachings of Islamic Sharia."

He added, "We tell Western tourists flocking to Tunisia for leisure at a time when our brethren are being slaughtered in Gaza by the Jews with the complicity of Western states ... the apostate Tunisian state is not able, and will not be able, to protect you."

Austrian authorities have confirmed that two of its citizens have been missing since mid-February, but declined to identify them. Reports in local Austrian media say that they are a couple from near Salzburg: Andrea Kloiber, aged 43, and Wolfgang Ebner, aged 51. Abou-Mohammad identified them by their professions as a nurse and a consultant, respectively.

According to a statement released by the Tunisian government, the pair was last reported heading into the Sahara in a direction that could have taken them across the border.

"Until now there is no element that proves that the two Austrian citizens are in Tunisian territory or that they were kidnapped inside Tunisian borders," it said. However it also said, "The authorities have begun carrying out intensive search operations by land and air."

Tunisia was also the scene of the 2002 Ghriba synagogue bombing, for which Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility. That attack left 14 Germans, six Tunisians, and one Frenchman dead and more than 30 others wounded.