Jan. 17 (Bloomberg) -- An al-Qaeda-linked group demanding that France end its offensive against militants in neighboring Mali vowed to kill foreign workers held captive in the southern Algerian desert unless troops surrounding them pulled back.
The group said it was holding 41 foreigners abducted from a natural gas complex operated by BP Plc, Statoil ASA of Norway and Algeria’s Sonatrach, while Algerian Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia said they numbered “a little more than 20,” according to the state-run Algerian Press Service.
American, Norwegian, British and Malaysian workers are 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.
“One day after the attack in In Amenas, we still face an uncertain and very serious situation,” Helge Lund, chief executive officer of Statoil, said today during a televised press conference from Stavanger. There has been no significant new information overnight, he said.
The militant group, calling itself the “Signatories by Blood,” is demanding France end its military attacks in Mali, according to Mauritania’s private ANI news agency. 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 already deployed in the country.
The group said it would kill the hostages if the Algerian army tries to liberate them by force, ANI today cited an unidentified spokesman as saying.
“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.”
Algerian authorities won’t negotiate with the kidnappers, Interior Minister Kablia said yesterday.
“If France doesn’t halt its intervention, we are going to execute these hostages,” Omar Hamaha, spokesman of the Malian group Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, said today of the attack on the gas complex, speaking by phone from an undisclosed location.
Al Jazeera television reported yesterday that the group had freed its Algerian captives. The broadcaster today said that it still held 150 Algerian workers, citing an unidentified source close to the attackers.
Thirty Algerian workers escaped today, according to APS.
The gunmen arrived yesterday in three vehicles at a workers’ compound near In Amenas, about 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) southeast of Algiers, and attacked a bus carrying foreign employees, the Interior Ministry said.
The American wife of a foreign worker on the bus said in a phone interview from Texas that 11 people, including Americans, were on the vehicle as it was attacked in the dark for three hours. One of them was killed and survivors including her husband were taken to a safe place while they wait to be flown out, said the woman, who asked not to be identified by name.
The workers were on their way to a police station to get fingerprints taken for work and residency visas, she said. BP and Statoil both said they would set up helplines for relatives.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland didn’t specify how many Americans were being held, citing security considerations. The ANI news agency cited the group as saying it is holding 41 foreign hostages, including seven U.S. citizens.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke yesterday with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal about the situation, Nuland said in Washington.
Several Britons are caught up in the incident, Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman, Jean-Christophe Gray, told reporters. The Irish government said one of its citizens was being held.
Statoil’s CEO Lund confirmed in the news conference that 12 Statoil employees are being held hostage and five have been brought to safety. Nine of the employees are Norwegian, he said.
Some of the people abducted were employed by JGC Corp., the principal contractor of the field along with Kellogg, Brown & Root LLC. JGC is investigating the situation, Japanese broadcaster NHK reported.
Algeria’s frontier with Mali was closed Jan. 14, three days after the first French air attacks against rebels and Algeria allowed French military flights through its airspace.
Algeria “has taken all the steps and measures necessary to cope with the impact of foreign intervention in Mali,” Kablia said.
The attackers were operating under the orders of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who previously led al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Kablia said. 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 in neighboring Niger.
Algeria holds the second-largest natural gas reserves in Africa after Nigeria, according to an annual statistical review by BP.
“One of the things that Algeria did was fortify all those oil and gas producing areas, and they were very successful, they were heavily guarded installations,” Le Sueur said. “That they finally got to them indicates a very substantial threat to the region or at least to Algeria.”
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