The carnage in Mali is spreading rapidly as Islamist militants seized a natural gas field partly owned by BP in bordering Algeria Wednesay, killing two and reportedly taking an additional 41 hostage, including seven Americans.
The Katibat Moulathamine, or “Masked Brigade,” has claimed credit for the attack through one of its subsidiaries, a group dramatically dubbed “Those Who Signed in Blood.” It said the onslaught was retribution for Algeria’s support of France’s recent and ongoing operation against Al Qaeda-linked Malian insurgents.
AP reports that the attack began with the ambush of a bus carrying employees from the gas plant to a nearby airport. Although the attackers were thwarted, the terrorists regrouped, heading the complex’s living quarters where they eventually took their hostages.
“After their failed attempt, the terrorist group headed to the complex’s living quarters and took a number of workers with foreign nationalities hostage,” said a statement from the Algerian government.
In a statement of its own, BP said the gas field was “attacked and occupied by a group of unidentified armed people,” and that members of its personnel are believed to be “held by the occupiers.”
While the number and identities of the hostages remains unclear, it is reported that they comprise at least ten different nationalities. According to the AP, Ireland just announced that a 36-year-old married Irish man was among those kidnapped, while Japan and Britain said their citizens have been taken as well. A Norwegian woman said that her husband called to tell her he had been taken hostage.
One of the two hostages killed is confirmed to have been British while the identity of the other casualty remains unknown. U.S. officials claim they do not believe that any American has been killed in the attack.
BP’s natural gas field, which is jointly operated with Norway’s Statoil and the Algerian state oil company, Sonatrach, is more than 600 miles from the Mali border, and just 60 miles from Libya’s deserts. A Japanese company, JGC Corp, provides services for the outpost as well, according to AP.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the kidnapped foreigners likely include Japanese employees of JGC.
“We are certain that JGC is the one affected,” Suga said, adding that the government is now negotiating with local officials through diplomatic channels, asking to protect the lives of the Japanese nationals.
AP reports that Algerian forces surrounded the militants and were negotiating for the release of the hostages, but no additional information has been revealed.
Over the weekend French President Francois Hollande launched a surprise series of air strikes in his country’s former West African colony, hoping to tamp down al Qaeda-linked insurgents in the region.
Algeria has been leery of escalated military action against Mali insurgents fearing this very type of vengeance would ensue. Despite Algeria’s strained relationship with France due to a long history of colonialism, the North African country supports France in its efforts to purge the region of Islamic militants.