Al-Qaeda's North Africa branch on Monday claimed responsibility for abducting two Austrian tourists missing in Tunisia since last month, according to a recording aired by Qatar-based Al-Jazeera.
In the audio recording broadcast by the Arabic news channel, the group's spokesman Salah Abu Mohammad identified the two as a consultant and a nurse.
The spokesman for Al-Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb said the man and woman were abducted on February 22 and were in good health, but he warned other Western tourists to stay away from Tunisia.
"A squadron of heroic mujahedeen was able to infiltrate deep into the Tunisian state and succeeded in kidnapping two Austrian tourists," he said.
"The two kidnapped are in good health and are being treated well in keeping with the teachings of Islamic sharia (law)," the voice attributed to the Al-Qaeda spokesman said.
"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 mujahedeen warned (you) in the past," the voice said.
"The apostate Tunisian state is not able, and will not be able, to protect you," he added, while not making any specific demands as a condition for freeing the alleged hostages.
A Tunisian official Monday raised doubts that two Austrians were in the north African country following unsuccessful searches for the couple.
"At this time, there is no way to confirm that the Austrian nationals are currently in Tunisian territory or that they had been abducted inside Tunisia's borders," an official source, stating the government's position, said in Tunis.
Austria's foreign ministry said Monday it had yet to verify the Al-Jazeera report on its nationals being kidnapped by an Al-Qaeda-linked group.
"We're in the process of obtaining the tape. Once we have done so, we'll have to analyse it and try to verify how credible its contents are," ministry spokesman Martin Gaertner told AFP.
The ministry said last week that an Austrian tourist couple, who were not named, had been missing in Tunisia since mid-February.
Austrian press reports have named the kidnap victims as Wolfgang Ebner and Andrea Kloiber. The foreign ministry said that the man, aged 51, and the woman, in her forties, were last heard of in mid-February from the village of Matmata in southern Tunisia.
The Tunisian authorities Monday confirmed that the couple had arrived at the port of La Goulette-Tunis on February 10 from Genoa in Italy for a tour of the Saharan region.
"The couple crossed the Tunisian border and headed for the desert," the source said, citing facts obtained from a telephone conversation between the two tourists and a German operator of Saharan tours.