The camp where the three were abducted is run by Western Sahara's Polisario Front independence movement [AFP]

Three aid workers have been abducted from a refugee camp in western Algeria, officials say.

Two Spaniards and an Italian were snatched from the Rabuni camp, mainly inhabited by refugees from Western Sahara.

The Algeria-based Polisario movement, which is seeking independence for Western Sahara and runs the refugee camp, said armed men abducted the three just before midnight on Saturday.

In a statement, it said the attackers came from the direction of neighbouring Mali in four-wheel drive vehicles and "left from where they came."

It identified the hostages as Italian woman Rossella Urru, Spanish woman Ainhoa Fernandez Rincon and Spanish man Enrico Gonyans. Polisario said Gonyans and one of the workers' Saharawi guards were injured in the attack.

In the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, a security source told AFP news agency that al-Qaeda's north Africa wing was behind the kidnapping.

They "were taken hostage by elements of AQIM [Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] under the authority of Moktar Bel Moktar [alias Belewar, the Algerian leader of an AQIM branch]," the source said.

The Polisario Front's envoy to Algiers told AFP he "directly accused" AQIM of carrying out the abduction.

Algeria swiftly slammed the kidnapping.

"We condemn this criminal act with the greatest vigour," foreign ministry spokesman Amar Belani said in a statement to AFP.

The Italian foreign ministry said: "In co-operation with the Italian Embassy in Algeria, [Rome] has immediately activated all channels useful in arriving at a positive outcome and is in contact with the relatives and with the CISP".

Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez said his government was working with regional counterparts "with great caution [so that] the aid workers are freed as soon as possible".

Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, was annexed by Morocco in 1975.

Morocco has proposed broad autonomy under its sovereignty and refuses to countenance any notion of independence, claiming that the Western Sahara is a historical part of its territory.

AQIM has not been known to target the camps for Western Sahara refugees in the past. The attack goes against Moroccan suggestions that AQIM and the Polisario work together to target Moroccan interests.

Moroccan Communications Minister Khaled Naciri told The Associated Press earlier this month that while there is no direct evidence of co-operation, it is possible that the members of both groups occasionally work together.

Source: Agencies