ALGIERS/MOGADISHU/BRUSSELS: French troops battled rebels in Mali Wednesday in a war that escalated as Al-Qaeda-linked militants attacked a gas field in Algeria, kidnapping up to 41 foreigners in retaliation for France’s intervention in Mali, according to media reports.
The raiders were also reported to have killed three people, including a Briton and a French national.
After days of airstrikes on Islamist positions in the northern territory the rebels seized in April, French and Malian ground forces battled the insurgents in the central towns of Diabaly and Konna, north of Bamako.
An Al-Qaeda-affiliated group said the raid had been carried out because of Algeria’s decision to allow France to use its airspace for attacks against Islamists in Mali, where French forces have been in action against militants since last week.
The attack in southern Algeria also raised fears that the French action in Mali could prompt further revenge attacks on Western targets in Africa, where Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb operates across borders in the Sahara desert, and in Europe.
AQIM said it had carried out Wednesday’s raid on the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria, Mauritania’s ANI news agency reported.
The Algerian Interior Ministry said: “A terrorist group, heavily armed and using three vehicles, launched an attack this Wednesday at 5 a.m. against a Sonatrach base in Tigantourine, near In Amenas, about 100 km from the Algerian and Libyan border.”
“The Algerian authorities will not respond to the demands of the terrorists and will not negotiate,” Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia was quoted as saying by official news agency APS.
The gas field is operated by a joint venture including BP, Norwegian oil firm Statoil and Algerian state company Sonatrach.
BP said armed men were still occupying facilities at the gas field, which produces 9 billion cubic meters of gas a year, more than a tenth of the country’s overall gas output, and 60,000 barrels a day of condensate.
A spokesman for BP said it usually had fewer than 20 people working at the site but would not be drawn on whether there were any talks with the hostage takers. He said: “Obviously we are doing everything we can to make sure our people are okay.”
APS said a Briton and an Algerian security guard had been killed and seven people were wounded. A French national was also killed in the attack, a local source said.
Also among those reported kidnapped by various sources were five Japanese nationals, a French national, an Austrian, an Irishman, and a number of Britons.
The U.S. State Department said it believed some U.S. citizens were also among the hostages, while Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said 13 employees of Statoil, a minority shareholder in the gas venture, were being held.
A member of an Islamist group styling itself the “Blood Battalion” was quoted by Mauritanian media as saying that five of the hostages were being held at the gas facility and 36 were in a housing area. APS said the Islamist raiders had freed Algerians working at the gas facility, though Regis Arnoux, head of French company CIS Catering, told JDD weekly newspaper that 150 Algerian employees of his company were being held at the site.
“The operation was in response to the blatant interference by Algeria and the opening of its air space to French aircraft to bomb northern Mali,” the Islamist spokesman told Mauritania’s ANI news agency.
ANI, which has regular direct contact with Islamist groups, said that fighters under the command of Mokhtar Belmokhtar were holding the hostages.
Interior Minister Kablia also told APS that Belmokhtar was leading the group of about 20 individuals, who he said were not from Mali, Libya or “any other neighboring state.” Belmokhtar for years commanded Al-Qaeda fighters in the Sahara before setting up his own group late last year after an apparent fallout with other leaders.
The Algerian army was in the area of the gas facility, according to French and Algerian sources.
ANI reported that the Islamists said they were surrounded by Algerian forces and warned that any attempt to free the hostages would lead to a “tragic end.” One of the hostage takers told ANI that the perimeter of the site had been mined.
The five Japanese hostages work for the engineering firm JGC Corporation, Jiji news agency reported, quoting company officials.
A reporter for Japan’s NHK TV managed to call a JGC worker in Algeria.
The worker said he got a phone call from a colleague at the gas field: “It was around 6 a.m. this morning. He said that he had been hearing gunshots for about 20 minutes. I wasn’t able to get through to him since.”
Meanwhile, Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked rebels said that they would kill the French intelligence agent they were holding hostage.
The Islamist extremists said that France had signed the death warrant of a French intelligence agent by launching a rescue operation last weekend that failed to free him, in a statement released Wednesday.
The militant group Al-Shabaab has held the French agent, Denis Allex, since July 2009. Al-Shabaab said it had decided to kill Allex in retaliation for the weekend operation. Two French soldiers and 17 Somalis were killed during the attempt.
French officials believe Allex is already dead. Al-Shabaab has said Allex was still alive after the rescue attempt.
Al-Shabaab also said it had been willing to free Allex in exchange for “Muslim prisoners.” It accused France of persecuting Muslims and pointed to the military operation by French forces against Al-Qaeda-linked extremists in Mali.
EU nations reiterated offers to help France against Mali’s rebels Wednesday, pledging logistical support a day ahead of key crisis talks.
Anti-terrorist measures, economic aid and funding for an African intervention force in Mali will be at the center of talks between EU foreign ministers Thursday.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that terror in Mali was “a threat not just for Africa but also for Europe.”