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Dozens of hostages, both Algerian and foreign, have reportedly escaped the natural gas field in eastern Algeria that Islamic militants seized on Monday, but as the hostage situation enters its second day, an estimated 35 hostages and 15 hostage-takers were killed in an airstrike as they tried to move from one plant location to another, reports Al Jazeera and Reuters.
Reuters reports that according to Algerian news sources, some 30 Algerians and 15 foreigners have escaped the natural gas field in the Sahara Desert near the Algerian-Libyan border. But scores of Algerians and dozens of foreigners remain hostages of the "Battalion of Blood" militant group, according to statements that the hostages were allowed to make in phone calls to news outlets.
An unidentified hostage who spoke to France 24 television said prisoners were being forced to wear explosive belts. Their captors were heavily armed and had threatened to blow up the plant if the Algerian army tried to storm it.
Two hostages, identified as British and Irish, spoke to Al Jazeera television and called on the Algerian army to withdraw from the area to avoid casualties.
"We are receiving care and good treatment from the kidnappers. The (Algerian) army did not withdraw and they are firing at the camp," the British man said. "There are around 150 Algerian hostages. We say to everybody that negotiations is a sign of strength and will spare many any loss of life."
Reuters adds that US, French, and British officials did not confirm the numbers of their respective citizens who were being held by the terrorist group.
Although the raid on the field comes just days after the start of France's intervention in Mali, a campaign which the hostage-takers in Algeria demand must end, experts say that it is unlikely the attack was a spur-of-the-moment response to events in Mali. Helima Croft, a Barclays Capital senior geopolitical strategist, told The New York Times that “This type of attack had to have advanced planning. It’s not an easy target of opportunity.”
And CNN notes that the attack's purported mastermind, Algerian militant Moktar Belmoktar, warned a month ago that his group, the Al-Mulathameen Brigade or "The Brigade of the Masked Ones," would soon attack Western interests in the region.
Robert Fowler, a former Canadian diplomat who was abducted by Belmoktar's followers in Niger in 2008 - and met the man himself - told CNN, "I suspect they have an intelligence wing and they are constantly looking for ways to grab westerners and embarrass the West and confuse our options. And that's exactly what they are doing."
In a 28-minute video that appeared on jihadist forums last month, Belmoktar warned that Al-Mulathameen would soon act against Western interests in the region.
"This is a promise from us that we will fight you in the midst of your countries and we will attack your interests," he said.
Mr. Belmoktar has a long history of jihad both in the Sahel region and father abroad, and is "renowned for hostage-taking and smuggling anything from cigarettes to refugees," according to CNN. He went to Afghanistan in 1991 to fight against the Russian-supported regime – where he received the injury that earned him the nickname "Belaouar," or "one-eyed" – and later returned to Algeria to fight the government there as a member of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the predecessor to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
But CNN notes that Belmoktar butted heads with other AQIM leaders, eventually prompting him to leave and launch his own militant group.
Abdelmalik Drukdal, the overall leader of AQIM, is said to have demoted Belmoktar late last year from his position as 'Emir of the Sahel.' Belmoktar also feuded with a rival commander – Abou Zeid – one of the most violent and radical figures in AQIM. More than most al Qaeda affiliates, AQIM is divided into often competing groups.
Citing regional security officials, Agence France Presse reported Belmoktar had been dismissed for "continued divisive activities, despite several warnings."
Libyan sources tell CNN that Belmokhtar spent several months in Libya in 2011, exploring cooperation with local jihadist groups, and securing weapons supplies.
A Libyan source told CNN that Belmoktar was "seen as a loose canon, running things in his own way" to the detriment of AQIM. "[T]he last thing the [AQIM] leadership wanted was to antagonize the United States just when it was trying to build up strength by stealth, below the radar."
Mr. Fowler, the previously captured Canadian diplomat, described Belmoktar to the Globe and Mail as "not a big man, he’s not a strong man, but he was absolutely the undisputed leader."
“They hate states. It’s all about God’s dominion on Earth. They don’t want a country. They want the world. They want the world to be ruled by God through the strict and uncompromising application of sharia [Islamic law],” Fowler said.