NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — Al-Qaida's North African branch has claimed responsibility for the killing of an American aid worker shot dead this week in Mauritania's capital, Al-Jazeera TV reported Thursday.
The Arab satellite TV station aired an audio statement purportedly issued by al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb spokesman Salah Abu Mohammed, who said the group killed 39-year-old Christopher Ervin Leggett on Tuesday because he was allegedly trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.
"Two knights of the Islamic Maghreb succeeded Tuesday morning at 8 a.m. to kill the infidel American Christopher Leggett for his Christianizing activities," the statement said.
The statement's authenticity could not be independently verified.
Mauritania's Interior Ministry said Thursday it was investigating the death and security forces were doing "all they can to catch the criminals."
In neighboring Senegal, U.S. Gen. William "Kip" Ward, head of the U.S. military command responsible for Africa, denounced the attack during a press conference in the capital, Dakar. Ward called Leggett's slaying "deplorable." He said the American response to the terror group's activities was focused on increasing the capacities of partner nations to deal with such threats, in part through military training.
The U.S. ambassador to Senegal, Marcia S. Bernicat, called the killing "regrettable" and said such violence shows al-Qaida's Algeria-based North Africa branch "has been getting stronger."
"It's a very troubling trend," she said. But "they're operating in a very difficult part of the world to manage."
U.S. officials have long expressed concern over the vast, lawless patches of little-policed desert in North Africa which criminals and now some terrorist networks have used as smuggling routes.
Extremist violence in Mauritania, a moderate Muslim nation, has increased in recent years. In 2007, a group of French picnickers was killed. The gunmen were believed to be linked to al-Qaida's north Africa branch and the incident prompted organizers of the famous Dakar Rally to cancel the trans-Sahara car race.
Al-Qaida-linked militants in Algeria have claimed responsibility for an ambush that killed 10 people this week but denied they deliberately targeted the two teachers who were among the victims.
A statement released on the Internet by al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, claimed the militants killed 100 people in 17 attacks through the months of May and early June. The dead included British hostage Edwin Dyer, who the militants announced they'd killed in neighboring Mali on Tuesday.
Leggett was shot several times by at least two unidentified gunmen who rushed up to him on a Nouakchott street, witnesses said. An AP correspondent at the scene saw officials from the U.S. Embassy arrive as the body lay on the pavement. U.S. officials have so far declined to comment.
Leggett grew up in Cleveland, Tennessee, and taught at a center specializing in computer science and languages in El Kasr, a lower-class neighborhood in Nouakchott, according to his neighbors in the United States.
The Rev. Jim Gibson, co-pastor of First Baptist Church of Cleveland, said Leggett was a church member and attended on return trips, but worked independently in the African nation. Gibson said Leggett had lived for six years in Africa with his wife and four children.
Associated Press writer Todd Pitman contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.