Islamist militants took several hostages from a foreign-operated gas field in an attack in eastern Algeria early Wednesday morning, calling the abductions a retaliation for the French-led military intervention in neighboring Mali.
Estimates on the number of potential hostages varied widely, with some unconfirmed news reports asserting that as many as 41 people, including several Americans, had been kidnapped from the site in In Amenas, near the Libyan border. Several others were wounded, and at least two deaths were reported. Algerian security forces were dispatched to the area, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
Fighters with links to Al Qaeda’s African affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility for the attack, according to Mauritanian and Algerian news agencies. They quote militants claiming that the kidnappings were a response to the Algerian government’s decision to allow France to use its airspace to conduct strikes against Islamists in Mali.
The attack on Wednesday was carried out by a “heavily armed” group of “terrorists” traveling aboard three vehicles, the Interior Ministry statement said, and targeted a bus transporting foreign workers to a nearby airport at 5 a.m. An “indeterminate number” of hostages were taken, the ministry said, while one foreigner was killed and six people were wounded, including two security guards and two police officers.
The gas field in In Amenas is a joint venture operated by the British multinational BP, the Norwegian group Statoil and the Algerian government-owned Sonatrach. The Japanese engineering firm JGC provides services there.
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. Algeria has authorized French jets flying missions in Mali to cross Algerian airspace. It shares a desert border of several hundred miles with Mali, but has resisted the possibility of organizing an armed intervention into the Malian north, fearing that fighting could spill into Algeria or drive militants into the country.
The Algerian 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.
Algeria’s strong security forces have struggled for years against Islamist extremists, and have in recent years managed to nearly snuff out violence by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb around its home base in northern Algeria. In the meantime, AQIM moved its focus southward.
AQIM has made tens of millions of dollars off kidnapping in the region, abducting Algerian businessmen or political figures for ransom and sometimes foreigners.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb began as an insurgent group fighting the secular Algerian government in the 1990s.