An al-Qaida-linked group is holding American, Norwegian and British hostages after a pre-dawn attack on a gas facility in southern Algeria as French troops attacked Islamist insurgents in neighboring Mali.
Americans are among the hostages, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in Washington, while not specifying a number because of what she said were security considerations. Mauritania’s private ANI news agency said the hostages included seven U.S. citizens.
The attackers had more than 20 foreign hostages after releasing Algerian citizens, according to the Algerian Press Service.
The heavily armed group arrived in three vehicles at a worker compound near In Amenas, about 800 miles southeast of Algiers, and attacked a bus carrying foreign employees, the Interior Ministry told the state-run news service. When armed escorts with the bus fought off the assault, gunmen went in the compound and captured an “undetermined” number of Algerians and foreigners.
A British citizen was killed and six people were wounded, according to APS.
Algerian authorities won’t negotiate with the terrorists holding foreign nationals at the gas facility in the southern desert, Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia said, speaking on national television.
Thirteen Norwegians are among the hostages, according to Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who at a press conference called the situation “very serious.” Several Britons are caught up in incident, Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman, Jean-Christophe Gray, told reporters.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke Wednesday with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal about the situation, Nuland said.
The al-Qaida-affiliated group in Algeria was created by Mokhtar Bellawar to take revenge on countries that supported French military action in Mali, ANI said. Algeria’s frontier with Mali was closed on Jan. 14, three days after the first French air attacks against Islamist rebels and Algeria allowed French military flights through its airspace.
The claim that the group was seeking revenge for the action in Mali couldn’t be independently verified. It’s associated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which is among radical Islamist groups targeted by the French armed forces in Mali, and is holding four Frenchmen kidnapped in 2010 from a mine operated by nuclear company Areva SA in neighboring Niger.
“This is exactly what Algeria was fearing because of Mali,” James Le Sueur, a history professor specializing in Algeria at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, said in a phone interview. “They were afraid that any incursion in Mali would cause a resurgence of al-Qaida.”
The American wife of a foreign worker aboard the bus said in a phone interview from Texas that 11 people, including Americans, were on the vehicle as it was attacked in the dark for three hours. One of the 11 was killed and survivors including her husband were taken to a safe place while they wait to be flown out, said the woman, who asked not to be identified by name.
The workers were on their way to a police station in Amena to get fingerprints taken for work and residency visas, she said. As soon as the attack began, her husband texted her and asked her to contact embassies, which she says she did, and has been in contact with officials ever since. BP and Statoil ASA of Norway both said they’d set up helplines for relatives.
The wet-gas field is operated by BP, Statoil and state-run Sonatrach. Algeria holds the second-largest natural gas reserves in Africa, according to an annual statistical review by BP. Nigeria has the biggest gas deposits.
“One of the things that Algeria did was fortify all those oil- and gas-producing areas, and they were very successful, they were heavily guarded installations,” Le Sueur said. “That they finally got to them indicates a very substantial threat to the region or at least to Algeria.”
Statoil said on its website that it had about 20 employees at the facility, including more than 10 Norwegians.
At least some of the people taken in Algeria were employed by JGC Corp., the principal contractor of the field along with Kellogg, Brown & Root LLC. JGC is investigating the situation, Japanese broadcaster NHK reported.
With assistance from Brian Swint in London, Salah Slimani in Algiers, Gregory Viscusi and Mark Deen in Paris and Nadeem Hamid in Washington.