WASHINGTON—The United States said on Wednesday that U.S. citizens were among the hostages taken when Islamists raided a gas facility in Algeria and that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had telephoned Algeria’s prime minister to discuss the incident.
“Beyond confirming that there are Americans among the hostages, I will ask you to respect our decision not to get into any further details as we try to secure these people,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing.
Nuland said Clinton had spoken with both Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and the U.S. ambassador in Algeria on Thursday, and that U.S. officials were also in contact with the security office of BP, which operates the gas field together with Norway’s Statoil and Algeria’s state company Sonatrach.
There were two reported deaths, one of them a Briton, in the early morning attack on the complex, which may be linked to France’s strike on rebel groups in northern Mali.
Algerian forces have surrounded the kidnappers and negotiations for the release of the hostages are ongoing, an Algerian security official based in the region said, adding that the militants had come from Mali. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
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A group called the Katibat Moulathamine, or the Masked Brigade, called a Mauritanian news outlet to say they had carried out the operation on the Ain Amenas gas field, taking five hostages — three Norwegians, a Briton and an American.
The group’s claim could not be independently substantiated and it was not clear why the reports over the citizenship and the numbers of those kidnapped differed.
Reuters was reporting that the kidnappers claimed to be holding as many as 41 hostages.
The Algerian Interior Ministry said one foreigner had been killed. Algeria’s state news agency later said there was been a second fatality, a British citizen.
The identities of the hostages and their location were still unclear, but Ireland announced that a 36-year-old married Irish man was among them, while Japanese officials said their citizens could possibly be involved as well. A Norwegian woman said her husband called her saying he had been taken hostage.
The caller to the Mauritanian news outlet, the Nouakchott Information Agency, which often carries announcements from extremist groups, did not give any further details, except that the kidnapping was carried out by a group created to attack the interests of countries participating in the ongoing offensive against Islamist groups in Mali.
French President Francois Hollande launched the surprise operation in its former West African colony on Friday, with hopes of stopping Al Qaeda-linked and other Islamist extremists he believes pose a danger to the world.
The natural gas complex, the third largest in the country, is a joint venture of BP, Norway’s Statoil and the Algerian Sonatrach company located some 1,300 kilometres south of the capital near the Libyan border.
The site is typically occupied by about 700 personnel, the large majority Algerian staff and contractors. Fewer than 20 foreign staff are usually there at any given time.
Wednesday’s attack began with the ambush of a bus carrying employees from the gas plant to the nearby airport but the attackers were driven off, according to the Algerian statement, which said three vehicles of heavily armed men were involved.
“After their failed attempt, the terrorist group headed for the natural gas plant and took a number of workers with foreign nationalities hostage,” said the statement, adding that authorities were following the situation very closely.
Attacks on oil-rich Algeria’s hydrocarbon facilities are very rare, despite decades of fighting an Islamist insurgency, mostly in the north of the country.
In the last several years, however, Al Qaeda’s influence in the poorly patrolled desert wastes of southern Algeria and northern Mali and Niger has grown and it operates smuggling and kidnapping networks throughout the area. Militant groups that seized control of northern Mali already hold seven French hostages as well as four Algerian diplomats.
The natural gas field where the attack occurred, however, is more than 1,000 kilometres from the Mali border, though it is just 100 kilometres from Libya’s deserts.
The British Foreign Office could not confirm if any British nationals were involved in the incident, while the U.S. embassy in Algiers said in a statement it wasn’t “aware of any U.S. citizen casualties.”
BP, together with Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian state oil company, Sonatrach, operate the gas field. A Japanese company, JGC Corp, provides services for the facility as well.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the kidnapped foreigners possibly include Japanese employees of JGC.
“We are certain that JGC is the one affected,” Suga said, adding that the government is now negotiating with local officials through diplomatic channels, asking for safety first to protect the lives of the Japanese nationals.
Statoil said that it has 20 employees in the facility. The Norwegian Foreign Ministry said it could not confirm that any Norwegian citizens had been abducted. The Norwegian Newspaper Bergens Tidende, however, said a 55-year-old Norwegian working on the site called his wife to say he had been abducted.
Algeria had long warned against military intervention against the rebels in northern Mali, fearing the violence could spill over its own long and porous border. Though its position softened slightly after Hollande visited Algiers in December, Algerian authorities remain skeptical about the operation and worried about its consequences on the region.
Algeria is Africa’s biggest country, and has been an ally of the U.S. and France in fighting terrorism for years. But its relationship with France has been fraught with lingering resentment over colonialism and the bloody war for independence that left Algeria a free country 50 years ago.
Algeria’s strong security forces have struggled for years against Islamist extremists, and have in recent years managed to nearly snuff out violence by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb around its home base in northern Algeria. In the meantime, AQIM moved its focus southward.
AQIM has made tens of millions of dollars off kidnapping in the region, abducting Algerian businessmen or political figures for ransom and sometimes foreigners.
French President Hollande said on Wednesday he was liaising with the Algerian government over the attack.
“As I am speaking to you, a hostage-taking is under way in Algeria at an energy facility, with a number of people taken hostage whose exact details we don’t know, not even for the French nationals who may be involved,” Hollande said in a speech to lawmakers.
“I am in permanent 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.”