By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Some hostages were reported to have escaped from a remote Algerian gas plant on Thursday, where dozens of foreigners and scores of Algerians were seized by Islamist gunmen demanding a halt to a French military campaign in neighbouring Mali.
Governments around the world were holding emergency meetings to respond to one of the biggest international hostage crises in decades, which sharply raises the stakes over the week-old French campaign against al Qaeda-linked rebels in the Sahara.
Algeria's Ennahar television said 15 foreigners, including two French citizens, had escaped the besieged plant deep in the Sahara desert. About 40 Algerians had also been freed, mainly women working as translators, it said.
An Algerian security source told Reuters the captors, encircled by Algerian troops, were demanding safe passage out with their prisoners. Algeria has refused to negotiate with what it says is a band of about 20 fighters.
The captors, who have been speaking regularly to media in neighbouring Mauritania, told that country's ANI news agency that Algerian helicopters had fired on the compound, wounding two Japanese hostages. This could not be confirmed.
A group calling itself the "Battalion of Blood" says it seized 41 foreigners, including Americans, Japanese and Europeans, after storming a natural gas pumping station and employee barracks before dawn on Wednesday.
The attackers have demanded an end to the French military campaign in Mali, where hundreds of French paratroopers and marines are launching a ground offensive against rebels a week after Paris began firing on militants from the air.
Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said the raid was led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran Islamist guerrilla fighter who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and had recently set up his own group in the Sahara after falling out with other local al Qaeda leaders.
A holy warrior-cum-smuggler dubbed "The Uncatchable" by French intelligence and "Mister Marlboro" by some locals for his illicit cigarette-running business, Belmokhtar's links to those who seized towns across northern Mali last year are unclear.
The hostage takers appear to have allowed some prisoners to speak to the media to put pressure on Algerian forces not to storm the compound. An unidentified hostage who spoke to France 24 television said prisoners were being forced to wear explosive belts. Their captors were heavily armed and had threatened to blow up the plant if the Algerian army tried to storm it.
Two hostages, identified as British and Irish, spoke to Al Jazeera television and called on the Algerian army to withdraw from the area to avoid casualties.
"We are receiving care and good treatment from the kidnappers. The (Algerian) army did not withdraw and they are firing at the camp," the British man said. "There are around 150 Algerian hostages. We say to everybody that negotiations is a sign of strength and will spare many any loss of life."
The hostage identified as Irish told the Qatar-based channel the captives included French, American, Japanese, British, Irish and Norwegian citizens.
"The situation is deteriorating. We have contacted the embassies and we call on the Algerian army to withdraw ... We are worried because of the continuation of the firing."
After what it said was a phone interview with one of the hostage takers, the Mauritanian news agency ANI said Algerian security forces had tried to approach the facility at dawn.
"We will kill all the hostages if the Algerian army try to storm the area," it quoted the hostage taker as saying. Algeria has not commented on reports its troops tried to approach. The militants earlier said they repelled an assault after dark.
The precise number and nationalities of foreign hostages could not be confirmed, with some countries reluctant to release information that could be useful to the captors.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed one British citizen had been killed and "a number" of others were among those held. Algerian media said an Algerian was killed in the assault. Another local report said a Frenchman had died.
The militants said seven Americans were among their hostages, a figure U.S. officials said they could not confirm.
Norwegian oil company Statoil said nine of its Norwegian staff and three Algerian employees were captive. Britain's BP, which operates the plant with Statoil and Algerian state oil company Sonatrach, said some of its staff were held but would not say how many or their nationalities.
Japanese media said five workers from Japanese engineering firm JGC Corp. were held, a number the company did not confirm. France has not confirmed whether any French citizens were held. Vienna has said one hostage is Austrian.
So far, Western countries seem reluctant to intervene on the ground in the Algerian standoff directly. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Paris had confidence in the Algerian government to handle it.
British Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman said Cameron had spoken to the leaders of Japan and Norway, and all had concluded that the best course was to work through the Algerian authorities.
Paris said the Algeria attack demonstrated it was right to intervene in Mali: "We have the flagrant proof that this problem goes beyond just the north of Mali," French ambassador to Mali Christian Rouyer told France Inter radio.
"Northern Mali is at heart of the problem, of course, but the dimension is really national and international, which gives even more justification to the French intervention," he said.
Hollande has received public backing from Western and African allies who fear that al Qaeda, flush with men and arms from the defeated forces of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, is building a desert haven in Mali, a poor country that was helpless to combat fighters who seized its northern cities last year.
However, there is some concern in Washington and other capitals that the French action in Mali could provoke a backlash worse than the initial threat by militants in the remote Sahara.
The militants, communicating through established contacts with media in neighbouring Mauritania, said they had dozens of men armed with mortars and anti-aircraft missiles in the compound and had rigged it with explosives.
"We hold the Algerian government and the French government and the countries of the hostages fully responsible if our demands are not met, and it is up to them to stop the brutal aggression against our people in Mali," read one statement carried by Mauritanian media.
They condemned Algeria's secularist government for letting French warplanes fly over its territory to Mali and shutting its border to Malian refugees.
Regis Arnoux, head of CIS, a French catering firm operating at the site, told BFM television he had been in touch with a manager of some 150 Algerian workers there. Foreigners were being kept separate from Algerian hostages, he said.
"They are tied up and are being filmed. Electricity is cut off, and mobile phones have no charge."
The attack in Algeria did not stop France from pressing on with its campaign in Mali. It said on Thursday it now had 1,400 troops on the ground in Mali, and combat was underway against the rebels that it first began targeting from the air last week.
"There was combat yesterday, on the ground and in the air. It happened overnight and is under way now," said Le Drian. Residents said a column of about 30 French Sagaie armoured vehicles set off on Wednesday toward rebel positions from the town of Niono, 300 km (190 miles) from the capital, Bamako.
The French action last week came as a surprised but has received widespread international support. Neighbouring African countries expected to provide ground troops for a U.N. force by September have said they will move faster to offer troops.
Germany, Britain and the Netherlands have offered transport aircraft to help ferry in African troops. Washington has said it is considering what support it can offer.
Many inhabitants of northern Mali have welcomed the French action, though some also fear being caught in the cross-fire. The Mali rebels who seized Timbuktu and other oasis towns in northern Mali last year imposed Islamic law, including public amputations and beheadings that angered many locals.
"There is a great hope," one man said from Timbuktu, where he said Islamist fighters were trying to blend into civilian neighbourhoods. "We hope that the city will be freed soon."
The rebels include fighters from al Qaeda's mainly Algerian-based North African wing AQIM as well as home-grown Malian groups Ansar Dine and MUJWA. Islamists have warned Hollande that he has "opened the gates of hell" for all French citizens.
A day after launching the campaign in Mali, Hollande also ordered a raid in Somalia on Saturday to free a French hostage held there by al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militants since 2009. That rescue was a failure, with two French commandos killed.
Al Shabaab said on Thursday it had executed its hostage, Denis Allex. France says it believes Allex died in the rescue attempt.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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