This image released by al-Qaida's media unit as-Sahab and taken from a militant Web site shows an undated photo of Osama bin Laden as part of an audiotaped speech posted late Wednesday, March 19, 2008. Osama bin Laden criticized the publication of drawings insulting to the Prophet Muhammad and warned Europeans of a strong reaction to come. [Agencies]
DUBAI - Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden threatened the European Union with grave punishment on Wednesday over cartoons of Islam's Prophet Mohammad.
In an audio recording posted on the Internet coinciding with the birthday of Islam's founder, bin Laden said the drawings, considered offensive by Muslims, were part of a "crusade" in which Pope Benedict was involved.
"Your publications of these drawings - part of a new crusade in which the Pope of the Vatican had a significant role - is a confirmation from you that the war continues," said the Saudi-born militant leader in a message addressed to "those who are wise at the European Union".
You are "testing Muslims ... the answer will be what you shall see and not what you hear. May our mothers lose us to death if we did not rise in defence of the messenger of God..."
The message, produced by al Qaeda media arm As-Sahab, coincides with the fifth anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq. Bin Laden said the publication of the cartoons was a graver offence than the "bombing of modest villages that collapsed over our women children."
"This is the bigger catastrophe and the more dangerous one and for which the punishment is graver."
The cartoons were first published by the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten in September 2005 but a furore erupted only after other papers reprinted them in 2006. In one of the cartoons Mohammad was wearing a bomb as a turban.
At least 50 people were killed in the protests against the publication of the cartoons, which Muslims say are an affront to Islam. Newspapers which have reprinted the cartoons argue they are defending the right to media freedom.
The message apparently is the first by bin Laden since November 29 when he urged European countries to end military participation with US forces in the Afghan conflict.
Bin Laden, the man behind the September 11 attacks on US cities, issued a number of messages late last year after a hiatus of well over a year raised speculation that he might be dead or incapacitated.
Bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in remote areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan, has tended to release messages to mark significant dates or events.
On September 7, 2007, bin Laden appeared in a videotape marking the sixth anniversary of the September 11 attacks and said the United States remained vulnerable despite its economic and military power. He then eulogised a September 11 hijacker in an al Qaeda tape that appeared on the anniversary date itself.
Later the same month bin Laden vowed to retaliate against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf for the killing of a rebel cleric and a raid on his mosque.
Bin Laden is blamed for masterminding a series of attacks on US targets in Africa and the Middle East in the early 1990s.
His wealthy family has disowned him and he has been stripped of his Saudi citizenship.