On the eve of an EU foreign ministers meeting today (17 January) dedicated to the Mali conflict, an al-Qaeda-linked group seized 41 Westerners at an Algerian gas plant, saying that French President François Hollande had opened ‘the gates of hell’ with his operation in neighbouring Mali.
A group calling itself the “Battalion of Blood” stormed the gas pumping site in southeastern Algeria early Wednesday.
The assault appeared to be linked to France's military support for the Malian government.
Algerian officials said 41 foreign nationals were being held, including citizens of Britain, France, Ireland, Austria, the United States and Japan. Norway said 13 of its citizens were being held. Euronews quoted a French catering firm saying 150 of its Algerian employees were also held captive.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said one Briton had been killed and Algerian media reported one Algerian national was killed in the assault. Another local report said a Frenchman had died.
"This is a dangerous and rapidly developing situation," Hague said in Sydney on Thursday, adding that Prime Minister David Cameron had spoken with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
"We have sent a rapid deployment team from our Foreign Office in order to reinforce our embassy and consulate staff there. The safety of those involved and their co-workers is our absolutely priority and we will work around the clock to resolve this crisis."
The gas facility in the In Amenas gas field is operated by a joint venture of Sonatrach, the Algerian national oil company, BP and Statoil.
EU foreign ministers due to meet today are expected to express further support for France's operations in Mali.
Guerrilla’s claim attack
Led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian veteran of guerrilla wars in Afghanistan, whom BBC called a senior Qaeda commander, the group demanded France halt its week-old intervention in Mali.
Western nations fear that al-Qaeda, flush with men and arms from the defeated forces of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, is building a haven in the Sahara.
A senior EU diplomat said such a safe haven for terrorists could turn into “a second Afghanistan” which may attract Jihadists coming from Europe, and prepare them for operations against European targets.
The militants, communicating through established contacts with media in neighbouring Mauritania, said they had dozens of men at the base, near the town of In Amenas close to the Libyan border, and that they were armed with mortars and anti-aircraft missiles.
They said they had repelled a raid by Algerian forces after dark on Wednesday. There was no government comment on that. Algerian officials said earlier about 20 gunmen were involved.
The militants issued no explicit threat but made clear the hostages' lives were at risk: "We hold the Algerian government and the French government and the countries of the hostages fully responsible if our demands are not met and it is up to them to stop the brutal aggression against our people in Mali," read one statement carried by Mauritanian media.
The group also said its fighters had rigged explosives around the site and any attempt to free the hostages would lead to a "tragic end." The large numbers of gunmen and hostages involved pose serious problems for any rescue operation.
Some analysts speculated that the attack on the Algerian gas plant was planned by the militants before France launched its operation in Mali. Islamists had warned Hollande that he has "opened the gates of hell" for all French citizens, Reuters reported.