Bloomberg News

Algerian Forces Storm Plant to Free Hostages

January 17, 2013

Algeria Kidnapping

This image from video provided by the SITE Intel Group made available on Jan. 17, 2013, purports to show militant militia leader Moktar Belmoktar. Algerian officials scrambled Thursday Jan. 17, 2013 for a way to end an armed standoff deep in the Sahara desert with Islamic militants who have taken dozens of foreigners hostage, turning to tribal Algerian Tuareg leaders for talks and contemplating an international force. The group claiming responsibility — called Katibat Moulathamine or the Masked Brigade — says it has captured 41 foreigners, including seven Americans, in the surprise attack Wednesday on the Ain Amenas gas plant. Photograph: SITE Intel Group via AP

Algeria security forces stormed a gas complex in the southern desert where an al-Qaeda-linked group was holding foreign hostages, according to an official with the state-run oil company Sonatrach, who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

Mauritania’s private ANI news agency reported that 35 hostages and 15 abductors were killed in an aerial raid, citing an unidentified spokesman for the group. The militants had been trying to move the hostages in vehicles when they came under attack, ANI said. The claim couldn’t be independently verified. Seven foreigners survived, including three Belgians, two Americans, a Japanese and a Briton, ANI said.

The group said it was holding 41 foreigners it abducted from a natural gas complex operated by BP Plc (BP/), Statoil ASA (STL) of Norway and Algeria’s Sonatrach, while Algerian Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia said they numbered “a little more than 20.” American, Norwegian, British and Malaysian workers were among the hostages, according to the oil companies, family members and governments, including 12 Statoil employees and an Irish national. A British citizen died in the attack, APS said.

“The Algerian authorities have confirmed that there is an ongoing operation,” the U.K. Foreign Office said in a statement.

Algerian Lead

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron spoke with Norwegian and Japanese lawmakers, and the companies involved at the complex, and decided it was right for the Algerians to lead efforts to end the crisis and has received no request for help, Cameron’s spokesman Jean-Christophe Gray told reporters today.

“The prime minister made very clear that we would consider any requests that they made for assistance,” Gray said. “We need to do all we can to ensure the safety of all the hostages of all nationalities.”

The militant group, calling itself the “Signatories by Blood,” demanded that France end its military attacks in Mali, according to ANI.

French ground troops advanced in Mali yesterday to engage Islamist fighters and ethnic Touareg separatists that have taken control of the northern half of the nation and were moving toward the capital, Bamako. France has committed 1,700 troops to the mission, including 800 deployed in the country.

Mali Connection

The group in Algeria said it would kill the hostages if the nation’s army tried to liberate them by force, ANI today cited an unidentified spokesman as saying.

The attackers were operating under the orders of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who previously led al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, according to Algerian Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia. AQIM is among the groups targeted by the French armed forces in Mali and is holding four Frenchmen kidnapped in 2010 from a mine operated by nuclear company Areva SA (AREVA) in neighboring Niger.

“This is exactly what Algeria was fearing,” James D. Le Sueur, a history professor specializing in Algeria at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, said in a phone interview. “They were afraid that any incursion in Mali would cause a resurgence of al-Qaeda.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Caroline Alexander in London at calexander1@bloomberg.net; Mariam Fam in Cairo at mfam1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net


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