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Italian hostage in Algeria speaks in audio message

An Arab satellite channel broadcast a purported audio message Friday by an Italian woman saying she is being held hostage in Algeria by Al-Qaida's North Africa offshoot. It was the first sign of her since her kidnapping earlier this month.

An al-Qaida spokesman also claimed responsibility for the abduction in a recording broadcast on satellite channel Al-Arabiya along with the woman's message.

The Italian tourist was abducted Feb. 2 in Algeria's remote southern desert while on a visit organized by a travel agency. Suspicion immediately fell on al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, which is active in the region and has often kidnapped foreign tourists.

In the terse audio message in French, the woman identified herself as Maria Sandra Mariani.

"I am the Italian woman who was abducted on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011, near Djanet in Algeria," she said. "I am still detained by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb."

The al-Qaida spokesman, speaking in Arabic, claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.

"We are al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Tarek bin Ziad battalion," the voice said. "I am speaking on behalf of Abdelhamid Abu Zaid, and this woman is his hostage since Wednesday Feb. 2, 2011. Her demand is that her message be announced so that her president and government hear it."

It was unclear when the messages were recorded.

The Italian Foreign Ministry did not comment directly on the message. It said Friday in Rome that it is keeping all channels of communications open, including with top Algerian officials "who have ensured their maximum commitment and attentiveness" to the case.

The ministry said it will continue keeping its initiatives secret, as it has done in previous hostage situations, in hopes of increasing its chances of success.

Al-Qaida's North African branch operates throughout the vast arid region from Mauritania to Chad. It has its roots in an extremist Islamic group in Algeria that brokered an alliance with the terror network in 2006. Since then, AQIM has kidnapped more than a dozen Europeans.

AQIM gunmen abducted two Frenchmen from a restaurant in Niger's capital last month, and the men were found dead less than 24 hours later.