Islamists kill 2, seize hostages in Algeria gas field raid
Armed Islamists claiming to come from Mali killed two foreigners, including a Briton, and kidnapped a group of Japanese and European workers in a raid Wednesday near an Algerian gas field, officials said.
The attack near the In Amenas gas field in southern Algeria appears to be the first reprisal against Western interests for a French-backed offensive against jihadists in neighbouring Mali.
The gas field is jointly operated by British oil giant BP, Norway's Statoil and Algeria's Sonatrach.
Algeria's interior ministry initially reported one foreigner killed in the dawn raid and six people -- two foreigners, two police and two security agents -- wounded.
The Islamists then headed to the oil workers' base, taking an unknown number of them hostage, including foreigners, the ministry said.
State media later said a Briton was among two foreigners killed in the attack, which it said was on a bus carrying engineers to the airport from the gas field, which lies close to the Libyan border.
The Foreign Office in London said it could not confirm reports that a Briton had been killed.
A spokeswoman said she could only confirm that "British nationals are caught up in this incident" and that it was an "ongoing terrorist incident".
An Algerian member of parliament said four Japanese and one Frenchmen were kidnapped in the raid, while the Irish foreign ministry said an Irish citizen was among the hostages.
Also known to be among those being held is a Norwegian man, whose wife told a newspaper in Oslo he had called her to say he had been taken hostage.
One of the attackers told AFP by telephone that they were Al-Qaeda loyalists who had slipped into Algeria from northern Mali where France launched a major offensive against the jihadists on January 11 to prevent them from advancing on the capital Bamako.
"We are members of Al-Qaeda and we came from northern Mali," the militant told AFP by telephone.
"We belong to the Khaled Abul Abbas Brigade led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar," he added.
Belmokhtar, renowned for the eyepatch he has worn since losing an eye, is one of the historic leaders of the jihadists' north African franchise, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
BP gave few immediate details of the assault.
"We can confirm that there has been a security incident this morning at the In Amenas gas field in the eastern central region of Algeria," the company said.
"The In Amenas field is operated by a joint venture of which BP is a member. We have no more confirmed details at this time."
In Amenas is a wet-gas field, operated by a joint venture of BP/Statoil and Algerian state-owned oil firm Sonatrach.
Norway's Statoil said it had been "notified of a serious situation involving an attack on the In Amenas gas production facility in Algeria."
"Statoil's emergency response organisation is now mobilised, and we are now working to get an overview of the situation. Our main focus is the safety of the employees at the facility," the company said.
"Algerian authorities are handling the situation locally, while Norwegian and British authorities have also been informed of the incident."
The firm said it had just under 20 employees at the facility, of whom more than 10 were Norwegian.
Algeria announced on Tuesday that it had closed its border with Mali, following the French offensive against Al-Qaeda in its southern neighbour but the 2,000 kilometre (1,200 mile) desert frontier is almost impossible to seal.
On Saturday, the Algerian foreign ministry expressed its "unequivocal support" for the transitional authorities in Mali.
On Sunday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Algeria had authorised the overflights of Rafale fighter jets based in France to take part in the operation in Mali.
Algeria suffered a devastating civil war with Islamist militants in the 1990s and officials had expressed fears of the possible blowback from any operation against Al-Qaeda in Mali.
Many of the fighters and weapons in Mali were displaced from Libya after the 2011 armed uprising that overthrew veteran dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
© 2013 AFP