Algeria Hostage Crisis: Al Qaeda-Linked Militants Kill 3, Hold Dozens Captive, Including Americans

01/16/2013 04:26 pm ET | Updated Jan 17, 2013

Islamist militants attacked a gas field in Algeria on Wednesday, killing three and taking dozens hostage.

Reuters reports that seven Americans are among the captives, a group that also include citizens of Britain, Ireland, Norway, France and Japan. The total number of hostages has yet to be confirmed, though some news agencies are reporting it to be as high as 41.

Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, responded to the incident from Washington.

"The best information that we have at this time is that U.S. citizens are among the hostages," she said via The New York Times.

A rebel group with ties to al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the attack, citing retaliation for France's military intervention in Mali. The group is an offshoot of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a terrorist organization that operates in Northern Africa and recently launched an aggressive insurgency in Mali.

"We are members of Al-Qaeda and we came from northern Mali," an Islamist militant told AFP by telephone. He said his group belonged to the Khaled Abul Abbas Brigade, a fighting unit led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former AQIM leader.

Since last week, France has deployed 2,500 troops to Mali in order to stave off extremist militants. Though France's allies have expressed their vocal support for the operation, most countries have been reluctant to send anything beyond good wishes for fear of retaliation. Algeria has opened its airspace to allow French fighter jets to join the offensive -- a fact specifically cited by the terrorists claiming credit for the attack, ABC News reports.

The In Amenas gas facility is located 600 miles from Mali and is a joint venture between BP, a Norwegian oil group and the Algerian national oil company. A BP spokesman told Reuters armed rebels continue to occupy the facility.

In a statement to local television, Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia affirmed his country's stance against negotiating with the militants, CBS News notes.

"Algeria will not respond to terrorist demands and rejects all negotiations," he said.

More from the Associated Press:

ALGIERS, Algeria — In what could be the first spillover from France's intervention in Mali, Islamist militants attacked and occupied a natural gas complex partly operated by energy company BP in southern Algeria on Wednesday. Two foreigners were killed and dozens of others, including Americans, were taken hostage.

A militant group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in revenge for Algeria's support of France's operation against al-Qaida-linked Malian rebels groups far to the southeast. It said it was holding 41 foreigners, including seven Americans.

Algerian forces have surrounded the complex and the state news agency reported a bit more than 20 people were being held, including Americans, Britons, Norwegians, French and Japanese, citing the local authorities.

"Algeria will not respond to terrorist demands and rejects all negotiations," Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said on television. He denied that the militants were from Mali or Libya, possibly suggesting they were from Algeria itself.

In a statement, BP said the site was "attacked and occupied by a group of unidentified armed people," and some of its personnel are believed to be "held by the occupiers."

The number and identities of the hostages were still unclear, but Ireland announced that a 36-year-old married Irish man was among them, while Japan and Britain said their citizens were involved as well. A Norwegian woman said her husband called her saying he had been taken hostage.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that according to their information "U.S. citizens were among the hostages."

In addition to those killed – one of them a Briton – six were wounded in the attack, including two foreigners, two police officers and two security agents, the state news agency reported.

Hundreds of Algerians work at the plant and were taken in the attack, but the state news agency reported that they have gradually been released in small groups, unharmed by the late afternoon.

A group called the Katibat Moulathamine, or the Masked Brigade, called a Mauritanian news outlet to say one of its affiliates had carried out the operation on the Ain Amenas gas field, taking 41 hostages from nine or 10 different nationalities, including the seven Americans.

The group's claim could not be independently substantiated and the U.S. embassy said it wasn't "aware of any U.S. citizen casualties."

The caller to the Nouakchott Information Agency, which often carries announcements from extremist groups, did not give any further details, except to say that the kidnapping was carried out by "Those Who Signed in Blood," a group created to attack the countries participating in the offensive against Islamist groups in Mali.

The Masked Brigade was formed by al-Qaida's longtime strongman in the Sahara region, Moktar Belmoktar, a one-eyed Algerian who recently declared he was leaving the terror network's Algerian branch, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb for his own group.

He said at the time he would still maintain ties with the central organization based out of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

French President Francois Hollande launched the surprise operation in its former West African colony on Friday, with hopes of stopping al-Qaida-linked and other Islamist extremists he believes pose a danger to the world.

Wednesday's attack began with the ambush of a bus carrying employees from the gas plant to the nearby airport but the attackers were driven off, according to the Algerian government, which said three vehicles of heavily armed men were involved.

"After their failed attempt, the terrorist group headed to the complex's living quarters and took a number of workers with foreign nationalities hostage," said the statement.

Attacks on oil-rich Algeria's hydrocarbon facilities are very rare, despite decades of fighting an Islamist insurgency, mostly in the north of the country.

In the last several years, however, al-Qaida's influence in the poorly patrolled desert wastes of southern Algeria and northern Mali and Niger has grown and it operates smuggling and kidnapping networks throughout the area. Militant groups that seized control of northern Mali already hold seven French hostages as well as four Algerian diplomats.

The natural gas field where the attack occurred, however, is more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from the Mali border, though it is just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Libya's deserts.

BP, together with Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian state oil company, Sonatrach, operate the gas field. A Japanese company, JGC Corp, provides services for the facility as well.

Prime Minister David Cameron's office said "several British nationals" are involved in the "ongoing incident," without giving an exact number.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the kidnapped foreigners possibly include Japanese employees of JGC.

"We are certain that JGC is the one affected," Suga said, adding that the government is now negotiating with local officials through diplomatic channels, asking to protect the lives of the Japanese nationals.

Japanese news agencies, citing unnamed government officials have said there are three Japanese hostages.

Statoil spokesman Lars Christian Bacher said the company had 13 Norwegian employees and a Canadian on the site and two of them have suffered minor injuries, but he would not comment about the situation of the others.

The Norwegian Newspaper Bergens Tidende, however, said a 55-year-old Norwegian working on the site called his wife to say he had been abducted.

Algeria had long warned against military intervention against the rebels in northern Mali, fearing the violence could spill over its own long and porous border. Though its position softened slightly after Hollande visited Algiers in December, Algerian authorities remain skeptical about the operation and worried about its consequences on the region.

Algeria is Africa's biggest country, and has been an ally of the U.S. and France in fighting terrorism for years. But its relationship with France has been fraught with lingering resentment over colonialism and the bloody war for independence that left Algeria a free country 50 years ago.

Algeria's strong security forces have struggled for years against Islamist extremists, and have in recent years managed to nearly snuff out violence by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb around its home base in northern Algeria. In the meantime, AQIM moved its focus southward.

AQIM has made tens of millions of dollars off kidnapping in the region, abducting Algerian businessmen or political figures, and sometimes foreigners, for ransom.

___

Paul Schemm reported from Rabat, Morocco. Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo, Jill Lawless in London, Jan Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, Esam Mohamed in Tripoli, Libya and Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this report.

01/18/2013 6:43 PM EST

2 American Hostages Still Unaccounted For

According to NBC News, U.S. officials have confirmed that the total number of Americans taken hostage on Wednesday was five. Of those, one was confirmed dead: Frederick Buttaccio of Texas. Two others managed to escape during Thursday's raid, while the remaining two are believed to be still in captivity. The militants had extended an offer to the U.S. to exchange two hostages for two jailed jihadists, which would account for the missing Americans.

The AP reported earlier that U.S. officials were refusing to disclose the exact number of remaining captives for fear that it might compromise their safety.

Read more at NBC News.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

01/18/2013 5:44 PM EST

Who Is Mokhtar Belmokhtar?

The Huffington Post's Hunter Stuart has written a profile on the man known as "Mr. Marlboro," believed to be behind the attack in Algeria.

Called "The Uncatchable" by French intelligence, Belmokhtar is known to locals as more of a businessman than a terrorist, having consolidated his power by being a benefactor to the region's poor desert people.

Stuart writes:

Until recently, Belmokhtar was a senior commander for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) but split from the group last year to form his own militia, called Those Who Sign With Blood.

The group's ability to take over such a high-profile target as the In Amenas gas plant, and to hold captive such a large number of hostages, illustrates its power and dexterity in the region.

To read the entire profile, click here.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

01/18/2013 5:32 PM EST

Kidnapper Identified

17-year-old Abdullah Abdallah Ould Hmeïda has been identified by Mauritanian news agency Sahara as one of the al Qaeda-affiliated militants who laid siege on the gas plant in the Algerian desert. Ould Hmeïda, who joined the group at age 14, was killed in the Algerian military's rescue operation yesterday.

--Shirin Barghi

01/18/2013 4:48 PM EST

American Hostage Was Shot By Militant

The Guardian spoke to an Algerian oil worker who has since been freed from the gas plant. He provided harrowing details of the terrorists' actions and the subsequent raid by Algerian forces.

At 10am on Thursday, when the Algerian army assault began, he said he heard "explosions, shots, bombing and women's screams". Then the hostage-takers told local workers: "Algerian brothers, don't be afraid, go in peace, you're going to go home, we're your brothers, we're all Muslim." One American hostage who had been with his Algerian colleagues was wounded after a fall, another was shot by a militant. "I don't know if they'd seen he was American or if they were afraid when he moved," he said. The American did not die immediately, he said, but he understood the man had since died.

The State Department has confirmed the death of one American, reported by the AP to be Frederick Buttaccio from Texas. It is unclear whether Buttacio is the hostage described above.

To read the rest of the first-hand account, visit the Guardian.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

01/18/2013 4:38 PM EST

Gallup: Algerians' Disapproval Of U.S. Leadership Among Highest In The World

A new Gallup poll reveals that Algerian approval of U.S. leadership has sunk to its lowest level since 2009, when Obama took office. In 2012, 68% of Algerians disapproved of U.S. leadership, rivaling the 71% rating received by the government under the Bush administration in 2008.

Algerians' disapproval of U.S. leadership is now among the highest in the world, behind only Pakistan and the Palestinian Territories. As news of the hostage crisis in Algeria -- involving Americans among other foreigners -- continues to unfold, the data show that the U.S. may need to tread carefully in its handling of the situation. While it is unclear at this point how Algerians feel about the terrorists' actions, it is clear that the large majority of Algerians were disgruntled with U.S. leadership before this crisis and thus may be leery of any action the U.S. might take.

To see the full report, visit Gallup.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

01/18/2013 4:30 PM EST

Fire At The Gas Plant

Al Arabiya English is reporting a massive fire at the In Amenas oil facility.

@ AlArabiya_Eng :

#BreakingNews: Reports of massive blaze in Algeria gas plant where hostages were held http://t.co/XxyjLaX6

--Eline Gordts

01/18/2013 4:27 PM EST

Dead French Hostage Identified

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced on Friday that at least one Frenchman was killed during the hostage crisis in Algeria. "The Algerian authorities have just informed us that one of our compatriots, Mr. Yann Desjeux, unfortunately lost his life during the operation to free hostages," Fabius said in a statement, according to Reuters. "The lives of three others of our compatriots who were on the site during the terrorist attack have been saved," he added.

--Eline Gordts

01/18/2013 4:18 PM EST

Name Of Dead American Hostage Released

Per the AP, the American hostage who has died in Algeria is Frederick Buttaccio from Texas. How he died remains unclear.

To read more, click here.

--Eline Gordts

01/18/2013 4:05 PM EST

Number Of Americans Still Being Held Unclear

The AP reports that Americans are still being held hostage, though the exact number remains unclear. After receiving an update from Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, Secretary Clinton stressed that the "utmost care must be taken to preserve innocent life."

Read more from the AP.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

01/18/2013 3:38 PM EST

'Without The Ouster Of Gaddafi, There's No Mali'

In the Jan. 11 episode of The World This Week on France 24, Paris Match's Régis Le Sommier connected the dots between Mali and Libya, stating that the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi paved the way for the militant resistance in Mali.

"Libya has given these people a number of weapons, there's been an outflow of weapons toward these people. They have gathered in central Mali, they've created the conditions for a new tribal zone over there, bringing back some threats directly toward Europe from this region," Le Sommier said. "What have we left in Libya? What is the state of Libya now? Not that I worship Gaddafi, but weren't we much better off when Gaddafi was there?"

A number of the kidnappers and arms used in the Algeria attack are believed to have come from Libya.

Watch the clip below:

For the full episode of The World This Week, click here.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

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French Intervention In Mali

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