17 January 2013, News wire – Tensions mounted at a gas-production facility in Algeria under siege by Islamic militants after government forces were reportedly repelled in an attack and hostage-takers warned of violence against those held captive if demands were not met.
Mauritian state broadcaster ANI quoted a militant source saying fighters at the In Amenas gas facility had fended off a raid by Algerian troops attempted after dark on Wednesday. He told ANI that the hostage-takers’ weapons included mortars and anti-aircraft missiles.
The militants, who stormed the facility in a pre-dawn attack on Wednesday, said they had dozens of fighters at In Amenas, Reuters reported. The Islamists issued no explicit threat but made clear to media in neighbouring Mauritania the hostages’ lives were at risk.
“We hold the Algerian government and the French government and the countries of the hostages fully responsible if our demands are not met and it is up to them to stop the brutal aggression against our people in Mali,” read one statement from the group, quoted by Reuters.
The attack was reportedly in retaliation of France’s decision to send ground troops into neighbouring Mali after about a week of air strikes aimed at Islamic militants in that country. The French moves have been supported by Western powers including the US.
As many as three people, including one British and one French, have been reported killed in the fighting.
ANI also reported the militants as saying that their fighters had rigged explosives around the site and any attempt to free the hostages would lead to a “tragic end”.
Details are unclear as to how many are being held. Reports have put the number of foreigners held at 41, including as many as seven Americans and an unknown number of Norwegian, British, Austrian and Irish personnel. Various sources have also said five Japanese working for the engineering firm JGC Corp were among the hostages.
Reports quoted the head of a French catering company who said about 150 Algerian employees were also being held at the site. Regis Arnoux of CIS Catering told France’s BFM television the local staff were being prevented from leaving but were otherwise free to move around inside, Reuters reported.
“The Westerners are kept in a separate wing of the base,” Arnoux told the news station. “They are tied up and are being filmed. Electricity is cut off, and mobile phones have no charge.
“Direct action seems very difficult … Algerian officials have told the French authorities as well as BP that they have the situation under control and do not need their assistance.”
AFP reported that about 50 of those workers had been released. The numbers have proved difficult to verify.
French army chief Edouard Guillaud said ground forces were stepping up their operation to engage directly “within hours” the alliance of Islamist fighters, grouping al-Qaeda’s North African wing Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Mali’s home grown Ansar Dine and MUJWA, Reuters reported.
Algerian officials said the attack Wednesday morning was led by a veteran Afghan-trained holy warrior whom French intelligence has dubbed “The Uncatchable”.
Analysts suggested the hostage-takers are likey to have a “range of motives” due to shifting alliances and rivalries among Islamists in the region.
French media said the militants are also demanding that Algeria release dozens of Islamist prisoners from its jails.
The Algerian government has said it would not negotiate with the terrorists.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said: “I want to assure the American people that the United States will take all necessary and proper steps that are required to deal with this situation.”
Statoil said it is doing everything it can to ensure the safety of its employees and has set up a next-of-kin centre in Bergen where it is offering consultations.
The Norwegian company operates In Amenas in a joint venture with BP and state-controlled Sonatrach.
The facility, which has been shut in, produces 160,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, more than a tenth of Algeria’s overall gas output, and 60,000 bpd of condensate. It is located near the Libya and Niger borders, about 1300 kilometres south of the capital Algiers.