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 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 told Reuters new information pointed to them being 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 towards 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 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.
The Algerian security source said the hostage was a 56-year-old woman and she was in an area of the desert frequented by tourists when she was seized.
She was kidnapped along with her guide and a cook, but they were released, the source said.
An Algerian security analyst said the kidnapping did not fit in with al Qaeda's usual mode of operating, which suggested the hostage-takers may be smugglers.
"This would be the first time that al Qaeda has kidnapped a woman alone," said Samer Riad. "This is against (Islamic) sharia rules. We wait to see if al Qaeda ... claims this action."
Al Qaeda's local branch, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has for years targeted Westerners for kidnap in the Sahara, mostly releasing them in exchange for ransoms or prisoner releases though some hostages have been killed.
AQIM emerged out of a long conflict between security forces and Islamist militants in the populous north of Algeria, along the Mediterranean coast.
Under pressure from Algerian security forces in the north, it moved some of its operations to the desert area straddling Niger, Mali, Algeria and Mauritania where the vast expanses and porous borders have provided it with a safe haven.
It is unusual for the group to carry out attacks inside Algeria, but several Western countries changed their travel advice last year to urge visitors to exercise caution if going to some traditional tourist areas in the Algerian desert.
(Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi in Rome; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Jon Hemming)