News Column

Report: Algeria Hostage Situation Not Over

Jan. 18, 2013

Islamic militants still held hostages at a gas plant in Algeria Friday, diplomatic officials said.

"Parts of the plant are under Algerian authorities' control, and other parts are not. This information is changing by the hour," Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide told the BBC.

Hostages were held at the BP natural gas facility near In Amenas despite an attack by Algerian forces Thursday that freed some of them, officials said.

The Algerian state news service APS, citing local officials, said the military operation at the facility's living quarters, where most of the hostages were held, ended but "hostages are still being held at the Tigantourine gas treatment plant, which is surrounded by special forces."

At least four hostages and a number of militants were killed when troops stormed the living quarters. The Islamic militants had claimed to be holding 41 foreigners after they attacked the facility Wednesday to protest, among other things, French military involvement in Mali.

At least four hostages were freed but the fate of others, from several countries, remained unknown.

Algerian officials hadn't released exact casualty figures from the rescue attempt. A spokesman for the insurgents told the Mauritanian news agency ANI 35 hostages and 15 militants were killed by helicopter gunfire in the operation.

APS reported two Britons and two Filipinos were killed Thursday. Two others, a Briton and an Algerian, died on Wednesday when the militants ambushed a bus taking foreign workers at the facility to the local airport.

The plant is operated jointly by BP, the Algerian state oil company Sonatrach and Norway's Statoil. It is situated at Tigantourine, about 25 miles southwest of Amenas and 800 miles southeast of Algiers.

Americans were among the hostages unaccounted for, a U.S. defense official told Fox News Channel. The exact number was unknown.

U.S. officials said five Americans survived and left the country, ABC News said.

Sky News said 10 Britons were unaccounted for.

"Our priority will remain the safety of British nationals and their co-workers," the Foreign Office said in a statement Friday. "We cannot provide any details that might endanger their lives. But we are working round the clock to resolve this crisis."

Japanese officials said least 14 Japanese nationals were missing and three managed to escape.

Norway said eight of its citizens were unaccounted for, one was hospitalized in Amenas and four escaped.

Statoil said two planes it chartered left Algeria Friday with 40 Norwegian employees from other Statoil installations in the country, Britain's Guardian reported.

French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said two French workers were safe. Irish officials said an Irish citizen was free.

A statement reportedly from the militants said the raid was carried out in retaliation over the French intervention against Islamic groups, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in neighboring Mali.

Algerian Communications Minister Mohamed Said Oubelaid said the militants wanted to destabilize Algeria, "embroiling it in the Mali conflict and damaging its natural gas infrastructure."

On Friday, a spokesman for the militant group told ANI it would carry out further operations, warning Algerians to "stay away from the installations of foreign companies as we will strike where it is least expected."

Washington, London and Tokyo officials said they urged Algiers to exercise restraint and not resort to force to free the hostages. But the Algerian government, which observers say has a history of violent suppression of Islamic militancy, took the action without alerting other governments, U.S. and British officials said.

A statement from Britain's Foreign Office said, "We should be under no illusion that there will be some bad and distressing news to follow from this terrorist attack."

In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration was "deeply concerned about any loss of innocent life and are seeking clarity from the government of Algeria."

The International Energy Agency in Paris said in its monthly report on prospects for the oil and gas sector that events at the natural gas facility are "casting a dark cloud over the outlook for the country's energy sector," The Guardian reported.

Algeria has some of North Africa's richest oil and gas reserves.

Source: Copyright United Press International 2013

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