Algiers: An Italian woman tourist has been kidnapped by armed men in Algeria`s Sahara desert, the official news agency and a government security source said on Friday.
Insurgents operating as al Qaeda`s north African wing have been active in the Sahara desert and have kidnapped several foreigners, but until now most of their activities have been in areas of the desert south of Algeria`s borders.
The Algerian security source had said earlier the kidnappers were affiliated to al Qaeda, but later said new information pointed to people involved in the local trade in drugs and contraband cigarettes.
"We are practically certain that these are smugglers," said the source, who was speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The group will attempt immediately to get the hostage outside Algerian territory, probably toward Niger," said the source.
Security experts say Sahara smuggling rings often cooperate with al Qaeda insurgents and in some cases have seized hostages then handed them over to al Qaeda.
In Rome, Italy`s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying it was still verifying reports of the kidnapping. In the meantime, it asked the Algerian authorities to do nothing that could endanger the woman`s safety.
Algeria`s official APS news agency said a major operation was underway to find the woman, involving security forces and the military.
The woman was kidnapped on Wednesday night in the desert south of the Algerian town of Djanet, the agency reported, citing an unnamed source in the local authority.
The kidnappers allowed the woman to use a satellite telephone to call her tour operator, who then notified the authorities, the agency said.