Islamist militants attacked and occupied a natural gas field partly
operated by BP in southern Algeria early Wednesday, killing two people
and holding an unknown number of foreigners hostage while surrounded by
U.S. officials believe that Americans
are among the hostages, but how many exactly was still unclear, CBS News
national security correspondent David Martin reports.
militant group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in
revenge for Algeria's support of France's operation against al
Qaeda-linked Malian rebels groups far to the southeast. It said it was
holding dozens of foreigners hostage.
In a statement BP
said the site was "attacked and occupied by a group of unidentified
armed people," and some of its personnel are believed to be "held by the
Ireland announced that a 36-year-old married
Irish man was among them, while Japan and Britain said their citizens
were involved as well. A Norwegian woman said her husband called her
saying he had been taken hostage.
A man who identified
himself as Mokhtar bel Mokhtar told the al Jazeera television network in
a phone interview that he was leader of the jihadist group which
carried out the attack, and that the hostages included British and
American nationals. His claim could not be independently verified, and
he spoke only of six hostages.
The U.S. Embassy in Algiers said in a statement it wasn't "aware of any U.S. citizen casualties."
addition to the two foreigners killed - one of them a Briton - six were
wounded in the attack, including two foreigners, two police officers
and two security agents, Algeria's state news agency reported.
forces surrounded the kidnappers and were negotiating for the release
of the hostages, 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.
group called the Katibat Moulathamine, or the Masked Brigade, called a
Mauritanian news outlet to say one of its affiliates had carried out the
operation on the Ain Amenas gas field, taking 41 hostages from nine or
10 different nationalities.
The group's claim could not
be independently substantiated and there would be fewer than 20 foreign
staff members on site on a typical day, along with hundreds of Algerian
The caller to the Nouakchott Information
Agency, which often carries announcements from extremist groups, did not
give any further details, except to say that the kidnapping was carried
out by "Those Who Signed in Blood," a group created to attack the
countries participating in the offensive against Islamist groups in
He said the operation was to punish Algeria for allowing French jets attacking rebel groups in Mali to use its airspace.
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
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 government, which
said three vehicles of heavily armed men were involved.
their failed attempt, the terrorist group headed to the complex's
living quarters and took a number of workers with foreign nationalities
hostage," said the statement.
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.
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.
natural gas field where the attack occurred, however, is more than 600
miles from the Mali border, though it is just 60 miles from Libya's
The British Foreign Office confirmed that "British nationals are caught up in the incident."
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.
are certain that JGC is the one affected," Suga said, adding that the
government is now negotiating with local officials through diplomatic
channels, asking to protect the lives of the Japanese nationals.
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
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.
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.
has made tens of millions of dollars off kidnapping in the region,
abducting Algerian businessmen or political figures, and sometimes
foreigners, for ransom.