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Scores of hostages remain unaccounted for after Algerian forces raided an energy complex in the Sahara yesterday where Islamist militants took workers from at least ten countries hostage this week. Now, one week after France intervened in neighboring Mali to curb the progress of Islamist militants there, the situation in Algeria highlights the increasing complexity of militant threats in North Africa's Sahara and Sahel.
The multi-national natural gas complex in eastern Algeria near the border with Libya – a joint operation run by the Algerian state energy company, Sonatrach, Norway’s Statoil, and British Petroleum – was seized and hostages were taken on Wednesday by Islamic militants who reportedly said their actions in Algeria were a response to France’s intervention in northern Mali, according to the Washington Post.
Thursday morning, Algerian forces launched an operation at the natural gas complex to free the international group of hostages, which resulted in varying reports of casualties. Reuters reports that dozens of captives were killed in the rescue operation:
An Irish engineer who survived said he saw four jeeps full of hostages blown up by Algerian troops whose commanders said they moved in about 30 hours after the siege began because the gunmen had demanded to be allowed to take their captives abroad.
Two Japanese, two Britons and a French national were among at least seven foreigners killed, the source told Reuters. Eight dead hostages were Algerian. The nationalities of the rest, and the perhaps dozens more who escaped, were unclear. Some 600 local Algerian workers, less well guarded, survived.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told ABC News yesterday that hostages included “somewhere in the vicinity” of seven or eight US citizens. “Right now, we just really don’t know,” Mr. Panetta added, according to The Post.
The Algerian government’s decision to respond to the hostage situation with military action without consulting leadership in countries whose citizens were held captive has surprised and confounded many, the Post reports.
Algeria did not notify the United States, Britain or other involved countries before it launched the rescue mission, officials said. In Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had urged Algeria to halt the operation, the Algerian ambassador was summoned for consultations....
[British Prime Minister David] Cameron said the Algerians insisted they had to act fast in launching the rescue mission, because “they judged there to be a immediate threat the hostages.”
The Post reports that some believe Algeria’s decision to move forward with the raid without consulting other countries stems from a desire to protect its sovereignty.
Some U.S. officials suggested that Algeria’s refusal to coordinate with allies was a reflection of local sensitivities, with Algerian officials fiercely protective of their national sovereignty. The former French colony has strengthened its ties with the United States in recent years, particularly on counterterrorism issues. But its relations with the United States and Europe also have been strained at times, with the Algerian government resistant to allowing foreign military activity within its territory. When the United States sought overflight permission for surveillance flights en route to Mali, Algeria agreed to the flights only on a case-by-case basis, according to U.S. officials.
According to Reuters, the Al Qaeda-linked hostage-takers have threatened to attack other energy plants as well.
A spokesman for al-Mulathameen, or “The Brigade of the Masked Ones,” one of three militant groups believed to be involved in the operation, said this morning that Algerians should "stay away from the installations of foreign companies as we will strike where it is least expected,” reports the BBC.
A preplanned event?
Some are now questioning the impulsiveness of the kidnapping operation. Though reports imply the decision to take workers hostage at the Algerian plant was spurred by France’s intervention in Mali, some say the planning involved in overtaking such a large and well-secured energy complex could not have been carried out on a whim.
The Post notes that observers point to the “sophistication of the attack” as an indication that “it may have been planned long before France intervened last week and that the motive may have been a show of force against an old adversary – the Algerian military.”
Algerian energy fields supply Western Europe with 20 percent of its natural gas, and the Algerian government is dependent on the export income. Some say this was “the most daring attack on Algerian soil in years,” according to The Post.
“Everything that I’ve seen … leads me to believe that this was a preplanned event,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He believes the militants may have started out simply searching for kidnapping targets, but “once the French intervention happened, they said, ‘We want to go for something big,’” Rogers said. He noted the “brazen” raid went beyond the scope of typical operations of Al Qaeda-linked groups in the region.
Algerian Communications Minister Mohand Said Oubelaid “said the militants were intent on ‘destabilising Algeria, embroiling it in the Mali conflict and damaging its natural gas infrastructure,’” according to the BBC.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that the militant attack “came as a stark warning of potentially greater struggles ahead.”
It’s unclear how much the Islamist groups that roam the deep Sahara work together. But they share ideology and, in some cases, links to the region’s Al Qaeda franchise as well as smuggling networks.
“We have flagrant proof that this problem goes beyond just the north of Mali,” France’s ambassador to Mali, Christian Rouyer, told France Inter radio in remarks cited by Reuters.
Reuters cites a security source as saying that the hostage-takers are believed to include Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, Malians, and at least one Frenchman, and Algerian security specialist Anis Rahmani said, "they were carrying heavy weapons including rifles used by the Libyan army during [Muammar] Gadaffi's rule. They also had rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns."