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, Statoil ASA 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.
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.
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 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.”