Two Italians were kidnapped in the West African desert nation of Mauritania, a police chief and a security official said Saturday.

The Mauritanian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media on the subject, said the hostages were taken by gunmen Friday night from their 4-wheel drive vehicle.

The security official said that one hostage was an Italian man and the other was his wife, originally from Burkina Faso. He said their vehicle was found empty and with bullet marks near the village of Kobeni in southern Mauritania.

Italian officials could not be reached to confirm the report.

Mauritania, once known as a predominantly moderate Muslim nation on Africa's western coast, has been rocked by attacks by the North African group known as Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb.

This kidnapping comes nearly three weeks after three Spanish aid workers were kidnapped in Mauritania. While there have been no official claims of responsibility for this abduction, Spanish officials have said they fear the hostages were taken by Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb.

The group operates mainly in Algeria but is suspected of crossing the country's porous desert borders to spread violence in the rest of northwestern Africa.

In June, American Christopher Leggett, 39, was fatally shot in the Mauritanian capital, not far from a school that he helped run. The North African Al Qaeda group claimed responsibility, saying they killed the Tennessee native because he allegedly was trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.