Islamist militants are reported to have killed two people, one of them a Briton, and taken a group of western contractors hostage in an attack on a gas field in south-eastern Algeria, apparently as a reprisal for France’s military intervention in neighbouring Mali.
The Foreign Office confirmed that several British nationals had been caught up in the attack, on a gas field part-owned by BP near the town of Ain Amenas on the Algerian border with Libya.
BP confirmed the site had been “attacked and occupied by a group of unidentified armed people,” and that some of its employees were believed to have been taken captive. Reports from the region said that six people had been wounded in the attack: including two foreigners, two police officers and two private security guards.
There were claims of responsibility by a group called Katibat Moulathamine, or the “Masked Brigade”, and by another calling itself “Signers in Blood”. It appeared possible they were both names for the same faction linked to a former al-Qaida leader called Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
Both claimed the attack was a reprisal for the French intervention against a jihadist offensive in Mali, which Algeria has supported by opening its air space to French warplanes. The US and other European countries have supported the French intervention, Operation Serval, by sending transport planes, while Washington has offered help with transport, intelligence and surveillance.
There was confusion over how many contractors had been seized in the Algerian attack. The group calling itself the Masked Brigade claimed, in a phone called to a Mauretanian news agency, that five hostages had been taken: three Norwegians, a Briton and an American.
BP’s Norwegian partner on the site, Statoil, said that 13 of its employees had been taken prisoner. The Norwegian company said that there had been fewer than 20 employees at the site and most of them were Norwegians.
However, the “Signers in Blood” claimed online that they had captured 41 western nationals, including seven Americans, some French, British and Japanese. That figure could not be confirmed, but usually there would be only a few foreigners on the site, working alongside hundreds of Algerians.
Japan confirmed its citizens were among the hostages. The Japanese engineering firm JGC provides services at the Amenas site.
Ireland announced that a 36-year-old Irish man was also part of the group, and a Norwegian woman said her husband had called from site to say he had been taken captive. But there has been no confirmation of any American hostages.
The Algerian authorities said their security forces were on the scene, but BP, a partner in the gas field with Norway’s Statoil, and Algeria’s Sonatrach company, said armed militants were holding the complex.
Late on Wednesday, the Algerian Press Service reported that Algerian workers taken in the raid were being “freed in small groups”.
The Algerian interior ministry said that the attack began at 5am when heavily-armed jihadists arrived at the living quarters on the complex in three vehicles.
“The attack began on a bus which was leaving the base, taking foreigners to the airport in Amenas,” according to a statement quoted by the Algerian Press Service. “After this failed, the terrorist group, headed towards the camp, taking over part of it and taking hostage an unknown number of workers, among whom were foreign nationals.”
Belmokhtar, a one-eyed veteran of Algeria’s civil conflict, was a deputy commander of Al-Qaida in the Mahgreb (AQIM), until last month when he broke away and set up his own group which he referred to as the Masked Brigade and “Signers in Blood”, dedicated to resisting western efforts to suppress the jihadist uprising that has taken over northern Mali and spilled into the surrounding region.
In Britain, the cabinet held a meeting of its Cobra emergency committee on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the government’s response to the crisis, while the foreign office issued a statement saying: “There is in an ongoing terrorist incident near the town of Ain Amenas at an oil installation near the Algerian border with Libya. We can confirm that British nationals are caught up in this incident. The FCO has political and consular crisis teams working on this incident. The British Embassy in Algiers is liaising with the local authorities.”