Islamist militants attacked a gas field in Algeria on Wednesday, claiming to have kidnapped up to 41 Westerners including seven Americans in a dawn raid in retaliation for France’s military intervention in Mali, according to regional media reports.
A Mauritanian news agency, ANI, said the raiders were commanded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran Saharan jihadist and smuggling kingpin. Here are some facts about Belmokhtar.
Linked to a string of kidnappings of foreigners in North Africa in the last decade, Algerian-born Belmokhtar has earned a reputation as one of the most daring and elusive Islamic jihadist leaders operating in one of the remotest corners of the globe - the vast Sahara desert.
“He’s one of the best known warlords of the Sahara,” said Stephen Ellis, an expert on organized crime and professor at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, the Netherlands. He said Belmokhtar had also gained notoriety as a Saharan smuggler, especially of cigarettes.
French intelligence dubbed Belmokhtar “the uncatchable” in 2002.
The White House said Wednesday it was closely monitoring the situation in Algeria after armed Islamists seized 41 hostages including seven Americans in an attack on a gas field.
“We are monitoring the situation closely and are in touch with the Algerians and our other partners in the region,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told AFP.
Algeria’s APS news agency said two people were killed, including a Briton, and six injured in the dawn attack by suspected Al-Qaeda loyalists in Tigantourine in southern Algeria.
An Algerian who among the hostages was released, according to APS.
The Qaeda-linked group demanded an end to French military operations against Islamists in northern Mali in return for the safety of dozens of hostages, Mauritania’s ANI news agency reported.
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 occupiers.”
The number and identities of the hostages was still unclear, but 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.
In addition to those 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.
Algerian 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.
But according to an AFP report, Algeria said it would not negotiate with negotiations with “terrorists.”
French President Francois Hollande launched the surprise operation in its former West African colony on Friday, with hopes of stopping al-Qaida-linked and other Islamist extremists he believes pose a danger to the world.
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.
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.
In the last several years, however, al-Qaida’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.