Alarm mounts over deadly Algerian hostage operation

by Beatrice Khadige, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jan 18 2013 08:25 AM | Updated as of Jan 18 2013 04:25 PM

ALGIERS - Foreign governments voiced growing alarm Thursday over the safety of their citizens seized by Islamists at a gas plant in the Algerian desert, where a dramatic rescue operation left many hostages dead.

As the families of the hostages and the countries involved endured a tense wait for definitive news from the raid on the In Amenas plant, local officials said Algerian special forces had taken control of the residential compound at the complex, where most of the hundreds of hostages were being held, but were still surrounding the gas facility which had not yet been secured.

According to Algerian Communication Minister Mohamed Said, "several people" were killed or wounded and a "large number" of hostages freed at the site, jointly operated by British oil giant BP, Norway's Statoil and state-run Algerian energy firm Sonatrach.

Earlier, the kidnappers, who are linked to Al-Qaeda, claimed the army air and ground assault on the complex near the Libyan border had left 34 hostages dead.

The kidnappers told Mauritanian news agency ANI they would "kill all the hostages if the Algerian forces succeed in entering the complex."

Algeria's Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia said the attackers had come from Libya, citing intelligence reports.

World powers expressed outrage and dismay.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who cancelled a key speech to the European Union, citing the unfolding crisis, described a "very bad situation" at the compound, where a number of British citizens had been taken hostage.

"Already we know of one who has died. The Algerian armed forces have now attacked this compound. It is a very dangerous, very uncertain, a very fluid situation and I think we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility of bad news ahead," Cameron said.

French President Francois Hollande said he was receiving regular updates on the "terrible" situation, which was strongly condemned by Japan.

In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: "We are certainly concerned about reports of loss of life. And are seeking clarity from the government of Algeria."

Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi called the hostage deaths "the atrocious consequence of a vile act of terrorism".

Islamists raided the site on Wednesday in an attack which left two dead in retaliation for a French offensive against Islamists in neighbouring Mali, demanding a halt to hostilities across the border.

Algerian media reports said nearly 600 Algerian workers and four foreigners -- two from Britain, one from France and one from Kenya -- were freed during Thursday's rescue operation. A total of 41 foreigners had been reported among the hostages.

The Irish government also said one of its citizens was freed, but Norway and Japan said they had no news of nine Norwegians and 14 Japanese.

Mister Marlboro'

Veteran Islamist fighter Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed Algerian jihadist with Al-Qaeda ties, has claimed responsibility for launching the attack.

Belmokhtar, dubbed "The Uncatchable" by French intelligence and "Mister Marlboro" for his illicit cigarette smuggling, was until recently one of the leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

But he was pushed out of the organisation towards the end of last year and set up a group called "Signatories in Blood". He has been blamed for previous abductions and the killings of both Algerians and foreigners.

The chief hostage taker on the ground, Abu al-Baraa, was reported killed in the Algerian operation by ANI, which often carries reliable reports from Al-Qaeda linked groups.

"We demand the Algerian army pull out from the area to allow negotiations," Abu al-Baraa earlier told Al-Jazeera news channel.

But Algeria insisted it would not negotiate with "terrorists".

The fast-moving hostage drama dragged Algiers and several top Western powers into the Mali conflict, taking the spotlight off French and government troops battling the Islamists controlling the country's vast desert north.

The UN special envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, said that the French air and ground intervention in Mali was the only way to stop Islamists creating "a terrorist safe haven in the heart of Africa".

In Brussels, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said EU countries may provide troops to help France in its former West African colony.

On Thursday, more French troops poured into Mali, boosting their number to 1,400, the defence minister said. At full strength the force will reach 2,500 soldiers.

A first troop contingent from Chad arrived in Mali while nearly 100 Nigerian and Chadian soldiers were on their way Thursday to make up an African force set to reach over 5,000 troops.

A French defence ministry source said there were "clashes in several areas" in the conflict zone, but "no fighting in the area of Diabaly", some 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of the capital Bamako, where the French troops engaged the Islamists on the ground a day earlier.

Islamist rebels who have controlled northern Mali since April last year pushed south into government-held territory last week and seized the town of Konna, about 700 kilometres by road from the capital, Bamako, prompting France to intervene.

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