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In Amenas gas field, jointly operated by British oil giant BP, Norway’s Statoil and state-run Algerian energy firm Sonatrach, in eastern Algeria near the Libyan border. TOP RIGHT: File photograph of Stephen McFaul, an Irish passport holder, taken hostage by Islamist kidnappers. ABOVE RIGHT: Former Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar speaking at an undisclosed location.
ALGIERS: Twenty-five foreign hostages escaped and six were killed yesrerday when Algerian forces launched an operation to free them at a remote desert gas plant, Algerian sources said, as one of the biggest international hostage crises in decades unfolded.
In the first official word from Algeria after hours of fast-moving events, government spokesman Mohamed Said was quoted last evening as saying the operation to free the hostages was still going on and many “terrorists” had been killed.
There had been “several deaths and injuries” among the hostages, he said, without elaborating. The reported loss of hostages’ lives raised a chorus of concern from Western leaders, scrambling for word on the fate of their nationals.
A local source told Reuters three foreign hostages were freed by the army as it continued its operation after dark.
The standoff began when gunmen calling themselves the Battalion of Blood stormed the gas facility 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 Mali.
The raid increased fears that 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 the evening. An Algerian security source said earlier 25 foreign hostages had escaped.
Mauritania’s ANI news agency, which has been in constant contact with the kidnappers, had earlier said seven hostages were still being held: two Americans, three Belgians, one Japanese and one British citizen.
It quoted one of the kidnappers as saying that Algerian ground forces were trying to fight their way into the complex.
The reports were difficult to confirm. Algeria’s official APS news agency said about half the foreign hostages had been freed and about 600 Algerian workers at the site had fled. 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.” ANI and Aljazeera reported 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. Last evening, ANI said it had lost 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 said.
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 rebels after air strikes began last week.
“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 UN charter,” French President Francois Hollande said, adding that things seemed to have taken a “dramatic” turn and he was still
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
Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said the kidnappers were led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran Islamist guerrilla who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and had 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.