NOUAKCHOTT - Agence France-Presse
In this undated image released Wednesday Jan. 16, 2013, by BP petroleum company, showing the Amenas natural gas field in the eastern central region of Algeria, where Islamist militants raided and took hostages. AP photo
An Algerian mission to free 41 hostages kidnapped by al-Qaeda-linked Islamists at a gas complex ended yesterday in a tragic fiasco after government forces reportedly fired on vehicles containing the hostages, killing 34 captives.
Britain, France and Norway, all of which have nationals among the hostages, confirmed an operation was underway at the remote site, which was attacked Jan. 16 in retaliation for France’s week-old military assault against Islamists in neighboring Mali.
A total of 34 hostages and 15 of their Islamist kidnappers were reportedly killed in the Algerian air strike at the In Amenas gas facility, Mauritania’s ANI news agency quoted a spokesman for the kidnappers as saying. “Thirty-four hostages and 15 kidnappers were killed in an [air] raid by the Algerian army.”
The source said Westerners were among the dead. Also killed was Abu al-Baraa, who led the Jan. 16 operation.
The spokesman said Algerian aircraft attacked the kidnappers when they tried to “transport some of the hostages in vehicles to a location to the south.”
Algerian media reported yesterday 15 foreigners and 30 Algerians being held hostage had managed to escape, but authorities could not confirm this.
Four hostages, including two Britons, a Frenchman and a Kenyan, were freed by the Algerian army, the APS news agency reported. After the airstrikes, the Algerian military launched a ground assault on the desert gas complex, one of the kidnappers told the ANI news agency.
“Warplanes and ground units have begun an operation to take the complex by force,” the spokesman said, threatening to “kill all the hostages if the Algerian forces succeed in entering the complex.”
Britain’s Foreign Office and a French
government source also said they had been informed of an assault, amid reports of the deaths. The militants killed two people, including one Briton, when it first raided the facility and took the hostages, which include British, Irish, French, Norwegian and Japanese citizens. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman said earlier yesterday that Britain would consider any requests for help from Algeria in its efforts to free the hostages.
British energy giant BP said it had also been informed of an Algerian attempt to “take control” of the plant.
“We have been informed by the U.K. and Algerian governments that the Algerian army is attempting to take control of the In Amenas site,” it said in a statement.
“The situation remains unclear and we continue to seek updates from the authorities,” it added. “Sadly, there have been some reports of casualties but we are still lacking any confirmed or reliable information. There are also reports of hostages being released or escaping.”
The company said it was evacuating a group of workers from Algeria. “As a precautionary measure, staged plans are under way to bring a group of non-essential workers out of Algeria.”
The militants said they seized the hostages in retaliation for the French
military intervention in nearby northern Mali, which began after Islamist rebels started pushing south toward a strategic airbase in the center of the country.
Algerian troops encircled the In Amenas plant earlier in the day, prompting gunmen to demand their withdrawal to allow for negotiations.
They have also demanded the release of some 100 Islamist extremists in Algeria, and want them sent to northern Mali to continue the fight against French
and Malian forces.