Dozens of Algerian hostages have escaped a gas facility in southeast Algeria, where Islamist militants continue to hold around 100 people, including 41 foreign nationals. The hostage-takers have demanded France end its military intervention in Mali.
Thirty Algerians have escaped from the BP gas facility where more than 150 Algerian and foreign hostages were being held by an al Qaeda-linked militant group, Algeria's state news agency said, in an unfolding crisis that engulfed regional and international actors.
Algerian forces have surrounded the In Amenas gas plant in southeast Algeria, where Islamist militants took 41 foreigners hostages in a deadly raid on Wednesday. The extremists have demanded that France halt its military intervention in neighbouring Mali in exchange for keeping the hostages safe.
Two people were reported to have been killed in the attack, including an Algerian and one Briton. Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed the death on Thursday, calling the killing "cold-blooded murder".
According to Mauritanian news agencies ANI and Sahara Media, the militants said the attack was in retaliation for Algeria’s decision to allow France the use of its air space for air strikes targeting Islamist rebels in Mali.
In a phone interview with FRANCE 24 late Wednesday, a French national being held at the In Amenas gas field, close to the border with Libya, said the kidnappers “attacked two sites at the same time, they went inside and gathered everyone.”
Hostages forced to wear explosives
According to the hostage, who declined to be named, the attackers were well-armed and forced some of the hostages to wear belts strapped with explosives. FRANCE 24 could not verify if the testimony was made under duress.
On Thursday morning, French authorities said they could not yet confirm the presence of French nationals among the hostages in Algeria.
Japan said it was making the safety of at least three Japanese nationals being held hostage its top priority and would work closely with other involved nations.
American, Norwegian, Irish, Australian, Philippine and Malaysian nationals were also among the hostages, according to different and sometimes conflicting news reports.
The hostage-takers told the AFP news agency by telephone that they were members of al Qaeda and had come to the In Amenas gas plant from northern Mali.
However, Algerian officials have said the hostage takers were "around 20 men from the region", not Malian or Libyan, and were led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran Algerian Islamist militant who was recently pushed out of the al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) group.
Algeria: ‘no negotiations with terrorists’
Algerian Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia, speaking on national television, insisted his country would not negotiate with the “terrorists”, who he said were surrounded by the army and security services.
A worker at the scene told AFP by telephone that the armed group was demanding freedom for 100 Islamists held in Algeria in exchange for the Western hostages.
As the attack raised fears of further acts of reprisal, President François Hollande said on Wednesday that he was in touch with Algeria’s government about the situation.
“I am in constant contact with the Algerian authorities who are doing, and will do, their duty. We are also in contact with the heads of state of the countries concerned,” he said.
The US also said that it was “closely monitoring” the hostage crisis, as the State Department confirmed that a number of those held at the plant were US citizens.
The In Amenas gas field is jointly operated by British oil giant BP, Norway's Statoil and state-run Algerian energy firm Sonatrach.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)
Date created : 2013-01-17