On a tip from Camp of the Saints:
Â Thirty hostages and at least 11 Islamist militants were killed on Thursday whenÂ AlgerianÂ forces stormed a desert gas plantÂ …
Hostages in Algeria ‘made to wear explosives’
FRANCE 24 spoke to one of the hostages at the BP-Statoil-Sonatrach gas plant in eastern Algeria on Wednesday, the site of aÂ deadly pre-dawn raid in which over 150 Algerians and around 40 Western foreigners were taken by Islamist militants.
FRANCE 24 has spoken to a French national who says he is one of the 150 hostages at the gas facility in southeast Algeria. The hostage said that they have been forced to wear explosive belts and that this militants are “heavily armed”.
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FOREIGN governments are voicing growing alarm over the safety of their citizens seized by Islamists at a gas plant in the Algerian desert, where a dramatic rescue operation left many hostages dead.
As the families of the hostages and the countries involved endured a tense wait for definitive news from the raid on the In Amenas plant, local officials said Algerian special forces had taken control of the residential compound at the complex, where most of the hundreds of hostages were being held, but were still surrounding the gas facility which had not yet been secured.
According to Algerian Communication Minister Mohamed Said, “several people” were killed or wounded and a “large number” of hostages freed at the site, jointly operated by British oil giant BP, Norway’s Statoil and state-run Algerian energy firm Sonatrach.
Japan confirmed the safety of three Japanese hostages, but 14 others remained unaccounted for.
Earlier, the kidnappers, who are linked to al-Qa’ida, claimed the army air and ground assault on the complex near the Libyan border had left 34 hostages dead.
The kidnappers told Mauritanian news agency ANI they would “kill all the hostages if the Algerian forces succeed in entering the complex.”
With the hostage drama entering its second day, Algerian security forces moved in, first with helicopter fire and then special forces, according to diplomats, a website close to the militants, and an Algerian security official.
The US government sent an unmanned surveillance drone to the BP-operated site, near the border with Libya, but it could do little more than watch as Algerian forces stormed the gas plant.
Algeria’s army-dominated government, hardened by decades of fighting Islamist militants, shrugged aside foreign offers of help and drove ahead alone.
World powers expressed outrage and dismay.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who cancelled a key speech to the European Union, citing the unfolding crisis, described a “very bad situation” at the compound, where a number of British citizens had been taken hostage.
“Already we know of one who has died. The Algerian armed forces have now attacked this compound. It is a very dangerous, very uncertain, a very fluid situation and I think we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility of bad news ahead,” Mr Cameron said.
French President Francois Hollande said he was receiving regular updates on the “terrible” situation, which was strongly condemned by Japan.
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: “We are certainly concerned about reports of loss of life. And are seeking clarity from the government of Algeria.”
Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi called the hostage deaths “the atrocious consequence of a vile act of terrorism”.
Islamists raided the site on Wednesday in an attack which left two dead in retaliation for a French offensive against Islamists in neighbouring Mali, demanding a halt to hostilities across the border.
Algerian media reports said nearly 600 Algerian workers and four foreigners – two from Britain, one from France and one from Kenya – were freed during the rescue operation. A total of 41 foreigners had been reported among the hostages.
The Irish government also said one of its citizens was freed, but Norway had no news of nine Norwegians.
Veteran Islamist fighter Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed Algerian jihadist with al-Qa’ida ties, has claimed responsibility for launching the attack.
Belmokhtar, dubbed The Uncatchable by French intelligence and Mister Marlboro for his illicit cigarette smuggling, was until recently one of the leaders of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
But he was pushed out of the organisation towards the end of last year and set up a group called “Signatories in Blood”. He has been blamed for previous abductions and the killings of both Algerians and foreigners.
The chief hostage taker on the ground, Abu al-Baraa, was reported killed in the Algerian operation by ANI, which often carries reliable reports from al-Qa’ida-linked groups.
“We demand the Algerian army pull out from the area to allow negotiations,” Abu al-Baraa earlier told Al-Jazeera news channel.
But Algeria insisted it would not negotiate with “terrorists”.
Even violence-scarred Algerians were stunned by the brazen hostage-taking, the biggest in northern Africa in years and the first to include Americans as targets. Mass fighting in the 1990s had largely spared the lucrative oil and gas industry that gives Algeria its economic independence and regional weight.
The hostage-taking raised questions about security for sites run by multinationals that are dotted across Africa’s largest country. It also raised the prospect of similar attacks on other countries allied against the extremist warlords and drug traffickers who rule a vast patch of desert across several countries in northwest Africa. Even the heavy-handed Algerian response may not deter groups looking for martyrdom and attention.
The fast-moving hostage drama dragged Algiers and several top Western powers into the Mali conflict, taking the spotlight off French and government troops battling the Islamists controlling the country’s vast desert north.
The UN special envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, said that the French air and ground intervention in Mali was the only way to stop Islamists creating “a terrorist safe haven in the heart of Africa”.
In Brussels, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said EU countries may provide troops to help France in its former West African colony.
Yesterday, more French troops poured into Mali, boosting their number to 1,400, the defence minister said. At full strength the force will reach 2,500 soldiers.
A first troop contingent from Chad arrived in Mali while nearly 100 Nigerian and Chadian soldiers were on their way to make up an African force set to reach over 5,000 troops.
A French defence ministry source said there were “clashes in several areas” in the conflict zone, but “no fighting in the area of Diabaly”, some 400 kilometres north of the capital Bamako, where the French troops engaged the Islamists on the ground a day earlier.
Islamist rebels who have controlled northern Mali since April last year pushed south into government-held territory last week and seized the town of Konna, about 700 kilometres by road from the capital, Bamako, prompting France to intervene.
Hostages made to wear explosives, continued:
French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said Thursday that Paris could not yet confirm the presence of French nationals among those taken captive, but Socialist MP Bruno Le Roux told French radio there were “surely” some French among the group.
The man, who declined to be identified by name, told FRANCE 24 that there were British, Japanese, Philippine and Malaysian nationals among the hostages.
He said the militants simultaneously stormed the gas plant as well as the workers’ living quarters. “They came in and once there was daylight, grouped us all together.”
He said the attackers were heavily armed and forced several hostages to wear explosives belts. They threatened to blow up the gas field if Algerian forces attempted to enter the site.
FRANCE 24 could not verify if the testimony was made under duress