Foreign hostages died along with their captors yesterday as Algerian forces raided a natural gas plant to free workers seized by an al-Qaeda-linked group.
There were conflicting reports about the number of foreign and Algerian hostages and their captors killed in the fight in a remote area of the south eastern Algeria desert, where the militants struck at a gas complex operated by London-based BP Plc, Statoil ASA of Norway and Algeria’s Sonatrach. A U.S. plane landed near the site today to evacuate American nationals, private Algerian broadcaster Nahar reported.
Caught by surprise by the timing of the Algerian assault, officials in the U.S., U.K., Norway, Ireland and Japan were attempting to get authoritative information about the fate of as many as 41 foreign workers. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain should prepare for “bad news ahead,” in a broadcast interview yesterday. Cameron will make a statement to the U.K. parliament at 11 a.m., his office said.
As politicians sought clarity, details about the siege began to emerge from hostages who managed to escape. An employee of a French catering company told Europe 1 radio today that he managed to hide for 40 hours. He said military forces were still searching the site for hostages.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton linked the crisis in Algeria to “the broader strategic challenge, first and foremost for the countries in North Africa, and for the United States and the broader international community.”
“Instability in Mali has created the opportunity for a staging base and safe haven for terrorists,” Clinton said after a meeting with Somalia’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud.
French ground troops advanced in Mali on Jan. 16 to engage Islamist fighters and ethnic Touareg separatists who have taken control of the north 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.
The militant group that took the hostages, which calls itself “Signatories by Blood,” has demanded that France end its military attacks in Mali, according to Mauritania’s private ANI news agency.
Algerian planes targeted at least two vehicles during their mission to free the hostages yesterday, acting on intelligence the attackers were trying to move them across the border to Libya, according to the state-run Algerian Press Service and Algerian Communications Minister Mohamed Said. Jeeps were struck, wounding hostages, ANI cited the kidnappers as saying in a telephone call.
“This remains a fluid and evolving situation and many details remain unclear,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said on his Twitter feed today. The “primary responsibility for tragic events in Algeria rests with terrorists who murdered some and held others hostage.”
Because of the risk of “copy-cat” attacks, the U.S. is reviewing security at its missions throughout Africa and the Mideast and urging American companies to do likewise, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said today that 14 Japanese remain unaccounted for, Kyodo News reported. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga called the Algerian assault “regrettable” and said Japan wasn’t informed in advance.
The U.S. deployed unmanned surveillance drones to gather intelligence during the standoff, according to two Obama administration officials. Both officials said the drones are unarmed, and they declined to say whether the Algerian government granted permission for the flights. The two officials asked not to be named because the drone missions are classified.
Nine of Statoil’s 17 employees at the plant are safe, the company said today in an e-mailed statement. The company is bringing home 40 other employees in Algeria.
Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and ConocoPhillips, two U.S. oil and natural gas producers with assets in Algeria, said they’re watching developments there. Production from Algeria accounted for about 8 percent of Anadarko’s output in the third quarter, and the company is a partner in the El Merk development that’s expected to ramp up, according to Alembic Global Advisors.