Al-Qaida's North Africa branch says it is holding captive two Canadian diplomats and four Western tourists kidnapped in Niger. 

The group calling itself "al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb" says it is holding Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler and his aide Louis Guay who were kidnapped in Niger in December.  The group is also claiming responsibility for last month's abduction of four Western tourists near the border with Mali.

In an audio recording aired by al-Jazeera television, a spokesman for the group said he was "glad to bring good tidings" about the success of what he called "two quality operations in Niger."  Spokesman Salah Abu Mohammed said militants reserve the right to deal with their six captives under Islamic law and will soon issue conditions for their release.

Fowler is a former foreign policy advisor to several Canadian prime ministers and served as his country's ambassador to Italy and the United Nations.  He is currently U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's special envoy to Niger.

Fowler, Guay, and their local driver, Soumana Mounkaila, disappeared December 14 when their vehicle was found abandoned with its doors open and motor running in the Karma area, about 40 kilometers outside the capital Niamey.  The three were thought to be returning from a visit to a gold mine operated by a Canadian company.

Tuareg rebels in Niger immediately claimed responsibility for their capture, saying it was a message to all diplomats who collaborate with President Mamadou Tandja.  But hours later, the same group backed-off that claim, saying civilians and diplomats are not part of its fight against the Tandja government.

President Tandja said last month that investigations by his security forces indicate the men are being held hostage by terrorist groups, referring to Tuareg rebels in northern Niger.

The four tourists - two Swiss nationals, one German, and one Briton - were abducted on their return from a nomadic cultural festival January 22.  Malian officials initially blamed Tuareg rebels for that kidnapping as well.

Tuareg fighting for greater autonomy for their traditional Saharan homeland are battling both the governments of Mali and Niger in a long-running conflict.  Mali's military launched an offensive last month that it says captured all the main rebel bases in the north-east.

Several hundred former fighters who surrendered to Malian troops this week are expected to join the national army.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is a Sunni group that was formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.  It began as an insurrection against Algeria's secular military rulers after the government canceled the second round of parliamentary elections in 1992 when it appeared a coalition of Islamist groups might take power.

It has since expanded and aligned itself with the broader al-Qaida terrorist network, claiming responsibility for suicide bombings in Algeria last year and the kidnapping of two Austrian tourists in Tunisia who were later freed in Mali.  It is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department and the European Union.