A chaotic and possibly extremely deadly conflict transpired in the Sahara Desert in Algeria, where the Algerian military apparently launched a raid by air to try to re-take its natural gas plant that had been taken by Islamist militants, in the process possibly killing dozens of hostages who worked at the plant from nine different nations, including up to seven or eight Americans.
While information is still extremely sketchy, world leaders expressed concern that Algeria launched the operation without consulting any other nations, resulting in many deaths. Algerian state television reported that four foreigners were killed in the operation, but the BBC is reporting that up to 34 hostages and 14 kidnappers were killed.
The Algerians have prided themselves on their ability to take care of their own internal matters, so it comes as no surprise to most observers that the nation didn’t consult with British, French, Japanese or American officials, who all had citizens working at the plant.
“If one thing has been sacred, it has been the image of the armed forces in securing its oil and gas production,” Jon Marks, a North Africa expert at Chatham House, the London-based think tank, told the Washington Post. “But if anything, this attack may show that Algerians can’t protect their hydrocarbon facilities as had assumed. This wasn’t some isolated pumping station. It was a big project that had been getting bigger, and this is going to be seen as an extreme embarrassment for the government.”
CBS News has quoted a British security source, citing a contact close to the scene, saying that “that the Algerians were firing from helicopters at anything that moved.”
The Algerian government claimed it had to intervene because of the militants’ stubbornness and their desire to escape with the hostages. The Algerian communications minister confirmed there were casualties in the military operation.
“An important number of hostages were freed and an important number of terrorists were neutralized and we regret the few dead and wounded, but we don’t have numbers,” minister Mohand Said Oubelaid said on national radio. “The operation to free the rest of the hostages still inside (the plant) is ongoing.”
CBS News reported that the kidnappers were armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and that some had suicide vests.
Islamists from the kidnapping group, which calls itself the Masked Brigade, speaking through a Mauritanian news outlet, said Algerian helicopters opened fire as they tried to leave the Ain Amenas energy complex with their hostages. They claimed that 35 hostages and 15 militants died in the strafing and only seven hostages survived.
Yesterday the terror group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) said they chose Algeria to punish the country for its decision to let France use its airspace to conduct air strikes on Mali.
“Algeria’s participation in the war on the side of France betrays the blood of the Algerian martyrs who fell in the fight against the French occupation,” a spokesman for the Masked Brigade, an arm of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, told Mauritania’s Nouakchott News Agency.
Hostage-taking has been a frequent tactic of AQIM in the past. It is almost impossible to stop because French citizens travel all over the world, including Africa, and could potentially be seized anywhere on the planet.