Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (C) and Minister
of Foreign Affairs Espen Barth Eide speak about the hostage
situation in Algeria during a news conference in Oslo.
REUTERS/Berit Roald/NTB Scanpix
Algeria said several hostages were killed when its forces
stormed a remote desert gas plant occupied by Islamist
militants in retaliation for French intervention in Mali, and
local sources said six foreigners were among the dead.
Amid reports of many more casualties in one of the biggest
international hostage crises in decades, Western leaders
expressed anger they had not been consulted before the
operation and scrambled for word of their citizens. Some
eight hours after the army assault began, Algerian state
media said it was over.
Americans, Britons, Norwegians, French, Romanians and an
Austrian, were among those taken, their countries said.
Algeria said its troops had been forced to act to free them
due to the "diehard" attitude of their captors.
"When the terrorist group insisted on leaving the facility,
taking the foreign hostages with them to neighbouring states,
the order was issued to special units to attack the position
where the terrorists were entrenched," the government
spokesman, Communication Minister, Mohamed Said told the
state news agency.
The standoff began when gunmen calling themselves the
Battalion of Blood stormed the natural gas facility early on
Wednesday morning. They said they were holding 41 foreigners
and demanded a halt to a French military operation against
fellow al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants in neighbouring
Said said the military operation, which Western officials
were told had begun around noon (1100 GMT) on Thursday,
resulted in "the liberation of a large number of hostages and
the destruction of a large number of terrorists".
The raid increased fears jihadist militants could launch
further attacks in Algeria, a vast desert country with large
oil and gas reserves that is only just recovering from a
protracted conflict with Islamist rebels during the 1990s
which cost an estimated 200,000 lives.
A local source told Reuters six foreign hostages were killed
along with eight captors when the Algerian military fired on
a vehicle being used by the gunmen.
He said 40 Algerians and three foreigners were freed by the
army as it continued its operation into Thursday evening. An
Algerian security source said earlier that 25 foreign
hostages had escaped.
Algeria's official APS news agency said about half the
foreign hostages had been freed and about 600 Algerian
workers at the site, under less tight guard, had managed to
MILITANTS KNEW THEIR WAY AROUND
In a rare eyewitness account of Wednesday's raid, a local man
who had escaped from the facility told Reuters the militants
appeared to have good inside knowledge of the layout of the
complex and used the language of radical Islam.
"The terrorists told us at the very start that they would not
hurt Muslims but were only interested in the Christians and
infidels," Abdelkader, 53, said by telephone from his home in
the nearby town of In Amenas. "We will kill them, they said."
Mauritanian agency ANI and Qatar-based Al Jazeera said that
34 of the captives and 15 of their captors had been killed
when government forces fired from helicopters at a vehicle.
Those death tolls, far higher than confirmed by the local
source, would contradict the reports that large numbers of
foreigners escaped alive. On Thursday evening, ANI said it
had lost its previously regular contact with the kidnappers.
Britain and Norway, whose oil firms BP and Statoil run the
plant jointly with the Algerian state oil company, said they
had been informed by the Algerian authorities that a military
operation was under way.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said people should
prepare for bad news about the hostages. He earlier called
his Algerian counterpart to express his concern at what he
called a "very grave and serious" situation, Cameron's
"The Algerians are aware that we would have preferred to have
been consulted in advance," the spokesman added.
Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said he had been
told by his Algerian counterpart the action had started at
around noon. He said they had tried to find a solution
through the night, but that it had not worked.
"The Algerian prime minister said they felt they had no
choice but to go in now," he said.
RAISING THE STAKES
The incident dramatically raises the stakes in the French
military campaign in neighbouring Mali, where hundreds of
French paratroopers and marines are launching a ground
offensive against Islamist rebels after air strikes began
"What is happening in Algeria justifies all the more the
decision I made in the name of France to intervene in Mali in
line with the U.N. charter," French President Francois
Hollande said, adding that things seemed to have taken a
"dramatic" turn and he was still seeking details.
He said earlier that an unspecified number of French
nationals were among the hostages. A French national was also
among the hostage takers, a local source told Reuters. A
large number of people from the former French colony live in
Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said the
kidnappers were led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran Islamist
guerrilla who fought in Afghanistan and set up his own group
in the Sahara after falling out with other local al Qaeda
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
A local source told Reuters the hostage takers had blown up a
petrol filling station at the plant.
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.
Britain said one of its citizens was killed in the initial
storming on Wednesday and "a number" of others were held.
The militants had said seven Americans were among their
hostages. The White House said it believed Americans were
among those held but U.S. officials could not confirm the
number. "This is an ongoing situation and we are seeking
clarity," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters,
expressing concern about the reported loss of lives.
Statoil said it had no word on nine of its Norwegian staff
who had been held but that three Algerian employees were now
free. BP 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. Vienna said one hostage was Austrian, Dublin said
one Irish hostage had been freed and Bucharest said an
unspecified number of those held were Romanian.
BP, Statoil and Spanish oil company Cepsa all said they had
begun to evacuate personnel from elsewhere in Algeria, an
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 helpless to combat
fighters who seized its northern oasis towns last year.
However, there is also 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
The militants, communicating through established contacts
with media in neighbouring Mauritania, said on Wednesday they
had dozens of men armed with mortars and anti-aircraft
missiles in the compound and had rigged it with explosives.
They condemned Algeria's secularist government for letting
French warplanes fly over its territory to Mali and shutting
its border to Malian refugees.
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 under way
against the rebels that it first began targeting from the air
The French action last week came as a surprise but received
widespread international support in public. Neighbouring
African countries planning to provide ground troops for a
U.N. force by September have said they will move faster to
Nigeria, the strongest regional power, sent 162 soldiers on
Thursday, the first of an anticipated 906.
A day after launching the campaign in Mali, Hollande also
ordered a failed rescue in Somalia on Saturday to free a
French hostage held by al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militants
since 2009. Al Shabaab said on Thursday it had executed
hostage Denis Allex. France said it believed he died in the