DUBAI - Al-Qaeda's North African arm posted photographs on the Internet late on Wednesday of two Italians kidnapped in Mauritania earlier this month, which were carried by US monitoring organisations.
Sergio Cicala, 65, and Philomene Kabore, 39, were pictured kneeling in front of five armed kidnappers against a desert background, in one photograph carried by SITE Intelligence and IntelCenter.
It was accompanied by photographs of both their passports and a written statement reiterating the claim of responsiblity by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb first made in an audio recording broadcast by Dubai-based satellite channel Al-Arabiya on Monday.
The group said the kidnapping was in response to Italian military involvement in Afghanistan and previously in Iraq, and called on the Italian public to pressure Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for a change of policy.
"At 7 pm on Saturday, December 18, 2009, by the grace of God alone, a group of our heroic mujahedeen successfully kidnapped an Italian and his wife near the city of Koubenni in Mauritania," IntelCenter quoted the statement as saying.
"This kidnapping comes as the crimes of the Berlusconi government against Islam and Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq continue, and as the Italian government, supported by its people, continues to support the new Crusader war (that) occupies our land and attacks our sanctities.
"We say to the families of the kidnapped and to Italian public opinion - if you (fear) for the safety of the two prisoners, then you must pressure your transgressor government to respond to the legitimate demands of the
But Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said on Monday that the government would not negotiate with the kidnappers and would remain committed to the international coalition in Afghanistan.
"If we decided to negotiate, even just once, we would have legitimised a terrorist organisation. Anyone who negotiates with terrorists supports terrorists," Frattini told the Sky TG 24 television channel.
The Italians went missing in southeastern Mauritania on December 18, when their minibus was found empty and riddled with bullets, security sources said.
The couple's disappearance followed the abduction of three Spaniards in northern Mauritania in late November, another kidnapping claimed by the same Al-Qaeda group.