In an audio message posted on an Islamist Web site, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden threatened the European Union with “punishment” for cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad.

The posting, released as Muslims celebrate the traditional birthday of Muhammad, came a month after several Danish newspapers reprinted the cartoons, which sparked violent protests across the Islamic world in 2006.

The message also coincided with the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

Bin Laden said publishing the cartoons was worse than the “bombing of modest villages that collapsed over our women and children. … The punishment will also be more severe.”

“Don’t listen to our words, watch our actions.”

The five-minute long audio message was the first released by bin Laden — who many U.S. intelligence officials presume is hiding along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border — since last year. The audio is accompanied by an undated photo of a white-clad bin Laden pointing an assault rifle, and has English subtitles.

The message was also accompanied by a graphic of a spear piercing a map of Europe.

“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,” bin Laden said.

The Associated Press reported that Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said bin Laden’s accusation that the pope has played a role in a worldwide campaign against Islam is “baseless.” Lombardi said the pope has criticized the cartoons, first published in several European newspapers in 2006 and republished by Danish papers in February.

Bin Laden has previously threatened European nations for their military participation in Afghanistan. But this message focused on the cartoons, which originally appeared in Danish newspaper. The publication sparked riots throughout the Muslim world, resulting in some 50 deaths.

More than a dozen Danish newspapers republished the cartoons on Feb. 13 of this year, after police arrested three people who were allegedly plotting to murder one of the original cartoonists.

The United States has a $25 million bounty on bin Laden for organizing the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Late Thursday, AP reported that Pan-Arab Al-Jazeera TV broadcast a new audio tape by bin Laden in which he slammed Palestinian negotiations and urges holy war for liberation of Palestine.

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