Chaos in West Africa dismays West allies
LONDON / ALGIERS
Algerian army tanks stationed near a gas complex in In Amenas are seen in this file photo. Japanese PM Shinzo Abe (4th L inset) discusses the situation with his staff while heading to Jakarta from Bangkok. AFP photoThe governments of Britain, France, Norway and Japan have expressed concern that they were given no prior notice of the Algerian military assault that turned into a fiasco after army airstrikes killed dozens of hostages held in a desert gas facility by al-Qaeda-linked captors.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Jan. 18 he was “disappointed not to be informed of the assault in advance and we do want to help in any way we can with technical help and assistance.”
Promising that the hostage-takers would be hunted down, he told Parliament the situation was still dangerous.
He said the Algerians had made no request for assistance.The situation was unfolding on sovereign Algerian territory and the authorities there had the right to handle things as they saw fit, he said, adding he understood the decision to act had been taken due to an “imminent” threat to lives.
He said the number of Britons being held was now “significantly” less than 30. Some reports have put the number at between ten and 20.
Japan’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Algerian ambassador to demand an explanation of why it had received no prior notice of the commando raid at the In Amenas gas plant as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cut short a visit to Indonesia to deal with the crisis.
Some 30 hostages were killed during the assault, a local source said, along with at least 18 of their captors, who said they had taken the site as retaliation for French intervention against Islamists in neighboring Mali.
Algeria raid ‘justifies’ Mali mission
“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 François Hollande said on Jan. 17.
Two Japanese, two Britons and a French national were among at least seven foreigners killed, an Algerian source said. Eight of the dead hostages were Algerian. At least 18 foreign hostages were unaccounted for on Jan. 18. France said two of its nationals had returned safely but it had no word on two others reported to have been taken hostage.
One man from Northern Ireland escaped. According to his brother, Stephen McFaul fled when the convoy in which he was travelling came under fire from the army. He had earlier “had explosives tied around his neck.”
Some 10 Japanese were among those unaccounted for, their Japanese employer said, while Norwegian energy company Statoil, which runs the Tigantourine gas field with Britain’s BP and Algeria’s national oil company, said eight Norwegian employees were still missing. Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg also said Jan. 17 that his government would have liked to have known about the operation in advance.
But Stoltenberg refrained from openly criticizing Algerian authorities, stressing that “here in Norway, and in other affected countries, we don’t have a full and complete picture [of the situation]. They do in Algeria.”
Algeria’s national media said on Jan. 18 that the Algerian army’s rescue operation had freed nearly 650 hostages, including around 70 foreigners. “Nearly 650 hostages seized in the attack carried out on [Jan. 16] by a terrorist group at the In Amenas gas complex, among them 573 Algerians and more than half of the 132 foreign hostages, were freed,” the Algérie Presse Service (APS) reported.
An Irish engineer who survived said he saw four jeeps full of hostages blown up by Algerian troops, whose commanders said they moved in about 30 hours after the siege began, because the gunmen had demanded taking their captives abroad.
Islamists who held several hostages at an Algerian gas plant sparking a commando raid threatened Jan. 18 to stage more attacks, according to a spokesman cited by ANI.
“We promise the regime in place that there will be more operations,” a spokesman for the “Signatories in Blood” told ANI.
US working with Britain, Algeria: Panetta
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. is working with the British and Algerian governments to assess what is happening on the ground. Panetta said the U.S. is “working around the clock to ensure the safe return of our citizens.”
An official from Turkey’s Embassy to Algeria said three Turkish nationals working at the gas reserve escaped from the raid. Bilal Yılmaz said he has spoken to the Turks on the phone and learned that they managed to escape prior to the raid.