Terrorists who seized hostages at the Algerian gas plant said the assault was in revenge for France's attacks on Islamists rebels in neighbouring Mali

Islamist militants are offering to free two  American hostages held captive at an Algerian gas field in exchange for the  release of two renowned terrorists jailed in the United States.

The attempt to negotiate comes after a US  citizen and up to 12 Britons, who were kidnapped with dozens of other foreign  oil workers on Wednesday, were killed in a botched rescue mission by Algerian  forces.

As many as 60 foreign hostages remain  unaccounted, as the bloody siege continues into its third day, though Algeria’s  news service said some could be hidden throughout the sprawling desert  site.

Yesterday’s air raid, which was carried out  in Algerian helicopters and special forces without the prior knowledge of the US  government, was meant to wipe out the al-Qaeda-linked militants and free the 132  foreigners from at least 10 countries who were being held, but instead left  scores of people dead, injured or missing.

Militants said seven  Americans had been taken hostage and it  was reported that two of them escaped unharmed yesterday.

Remote: The In Salah gas project is located in the Sahara desert in Algeria

The Associated Press said today that  kidnappers wanted to swap two American hostages still in captivity for two  prominent terror figures in jail in the US, according to a Mauritanian website.

One of the two terrorists the captors want  freed is Omar Abdel Rahman, who masterminded the 1993 World Trade  Center  bombing. The other is a Pakistani scientist convicted of shooting at two U.S.  soldiers in Afghanistan.

‘The Blind Sheikh’, as Abdel Rahman is often  known, is currently serving a life sentence at the Butner Federal Correctional  Institution in Butner, North Carolina.

The offer, according to a Mauritanian news  site that frequently broadcasts  dispatches from groups linked to al-Qaida, came  from Moktar Belmoktar,  an extremist commander based in Mali who apparently  masterminded the  operation.

Terrorists who seized hostages at the Algerian gas plant said the assault was in revenge for France’s attacks on Islamists rebels in neighbouring Mali

Five other Americans who had been at the vast Ain Amenas  complex were able to avoid being taken captive when the  terrorists first  attacked early on Wednesday. Neither the  Obama administration nor the British government was aware of the Algerian  military’s raid ahead of time.

Algeria‘s news service said special forces had resumed  negotiations with militants today as foreign leaders  scrambled to find out the  fates of their citizens.

According to Reuters, the kidnappers were  also threatening to attack other energy installations after the bloody raid.

Bloodshed: A picture taken on January 12 reportedly shows the body of a fighter of Islamist insurgent group Ansar Dine allegedly killed during an air strike by the French army in Mali
French soldiers leave Mali’s capital Bamako: The gas plant terrorists claimed they launched the assault in revenge for France’s attacks on al-Qaeda rebels in the west African country

The American who was killed in the raid is  from Texas although his or her name has not been released nor any other  details.

A U.S. C-130 military aircraft is evacuating  between 10 and 20 people caught up in the hostage-taking, a U.S. defense  official told CNN on Friday.

They will be flown to U.S. facilities in  Europe, the official said, and the condition of those who are injured will be  assessed on the flight.

‘We just don’t know what kind of injuries  they have,’ he said.

A total of 18 militants were killed and  the  plant’s living quarters were secured, according to the Algerian government  news  agency, which cited security officials.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was  briefed  early on Friday, a senior defense official told The Associated  Press, but  offered no other details because ‘we view it as a sensitive,  ongoing  situation.’

Mr Panetta said in London that there  was ‘no  justification for the kidnapping and murder of innocent people’  in Algeria, and  vowed the US government was ‘working around the clock to ensure the safe return  of our citizens.’

He warned terrorists in Algeria that there  was ‘no place to hide’ and said that American authorities were working closely  with Britain and other  nations ‘to assess precisely what was happening on the  ground.’

He added that ‘regardless of the motivation  of hostage takers there was no justification for the kidnap and murder of  innocent people going about  their daily lives.’

Support: Nigerian army soldiers load bags of food as part of preparations for deployment in Mali at the Nigerian Army peacekeeping centre in Jaji, near Kaduna
Mobilising: French army helicopters arrive at the military airbase in Bamako before their deployment in Northern Mali, where France has launched attacks on Al Qaeda rebels

‘Terrorists should be on notice that they  will find no sanctuary or refuge; not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not  anywhere. Those who will want only to attack will have no place to hide,’ he  said.

Instead of freeing the dozens of hostages,  the raid resulted in bloody chaos at  the isolated plant 800 miles south of the  capital, Algiers, leaving the  fate of many of the captives and the fighters  uncertain. In launching  its assault, Algeria also ignored offers of help from  the SAS and  American special forces.

‘We asked them not to go in with all  guns  blazing and they just did it anyway,’ said one London official.  ‘They insisted  this was their sovereign territory and it was their  operation.’

French sources said the decision to  go in  was taken because the terrorists were executing hostages. Last  night, after a  fierce day of fighting, Algerian officials said the  rescue operation was over.  They said Tahar Ben Cheneb, a prominent commander in the region, was among the  dead militants.

The 11 bodies of gunmen found on Thursday  comprised three Egyptians, two  Tunisians, two Libyans, a Malian and a Frenchman  and all were assumed to have been hostage-takers, a security source told  Reuters. Algeria state news agency APS said the group had planned to take the  hostages to  Mali.

On Friday, the source said 18 militants had  now been found dead.

A source said yesterday that 30 hostages were  killed, of whom the  nationalities of 15 had been established. Of these, eight  were Algerian  and seven were foreigners, including two British, two Japanese  and a  French national. One Briton was killed when the terrorists seized the  gas compound on Wednesday. The number of foreigners unaccounted for and feared  dead is now at 60.

Weapons: French soldiers from 2nd RIMA ‘Marsouins’ unit gather on the tarmac of the military airbase in Bamako, the capital of Mali

An Irish engineer who survived said  he saw  four jeeps full of hostages blown up by Algerian troops whose  commanders said  they moved in about 30 hours after the siege began  because the gunmen had  demanded to be allowed to take their captives  abroad.

A French hostage employed by a French catering company said Algerian military forces had found some British  hostages  hiding in a roof space and were combing the sprawling In Amenas site for others  when he was escorted away by the military.

‘I hid in my room for nearly 40 hours, under  the bed. I put boards up pretty much all round,’ Alexandre  Berceaux told Europe  1. ‘I didn’t know how long I was going to stay  there … I was afraid. I could  see myself already ending up in a pine  box.’

The Japanese government said on  Friday that  three of its citizens escaped but 14 were still unaccounted  for and their fate  was unclear.

Scene: The plant is located in In Amenas, around 60 miles from the Libyan border and 800 miles from the capital in Algeria’s vast desert south

BP said there was a ‘small number of  BP  employees’ at the facility ‘whose current location and situation  remain  uncertain.’ It added that 11 employees and hundreds of staff at  other oil  companies were flown out of the area yesterday and also  described the situation  as ‘ongoing.’

Fierce gun battles erupted at midday  on  Thursday as troops moved in on the Islamists and there were claims  that  hostages had been used as human shields. An eyewitness described a  scene of  carnage, saying: ‘There were bodies all over the ground.’   Another spoke  of Algerian forces firing at ‘anything that moved’.

The Obama administration appeared to  be in  the dark on Thursday about the hostage situation at the natural gas  plant deep  in the Sahara Desert. An administrative official told the  Associated Press that  the U.S. was not aware of the raid to free the  hostages in advance.

The administration was  offering no details  about how many American hostages had been taken and  whether they were still in  captivity — or even alive. A source told the  AP that while some U.S. citizens  escaped, others remained missing or  unaccounted for.

Secretary  of State Hillary Rodham Clinton  said U.S. counterterrorism officials  were in touch with their Algerian  counterparts and that she planned to  speak on Thursday with Algerian Prime  Minister Abdelmalek Sellal for the  second time in as many days. She made a  vague reference to ongoing U.S.  ‘planning,’ without elaborating.

‘The security of our Americans who are held  hostage is our highest  priority,’ Clinton told reporters. ‘Because of the  fluidity and the fact that there is a lot of planning going on, I cannot give  you any further details.

‘This is a serious and sensitive  situation,’  Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters traveling  with Defense  Secretary Leon Panetta in England. Little said military  officials were actively  seeking information, and that Panetta had been  briefed by senior military  officials.

Ahead of the raid, U.S. officials had been  urging the Algerians to be cautious in their actions, but did not  know a rescue  mission was planned, said the administration official, who spoke on the  condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak  publicly.

Militants  earlier said they were holding  seven Americans, but the administration  confirmed only that Americans were  among those taken.

‘We are deeply concerned about any loss of  innocent life and are seeking  clarity from the government of Algeria,’ White  House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.

During her conversation with Algeria’s prime  minister on Wednesday, Clinton  expressed Washington’s ‘willingness to be  helpful,’ State Department  spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. They also  discussed what type of  assistance might be needed, Nuland added, but declined  to provide  details.

A local worker  said from his home on  Thursday that the Islamist gunmen of the ‘Battalion of Blood’ told the terrified  staff that they would not harm  Muslims but would kill ‘Christians and  infidels.’

Algerian security specialist Anis Rahmani  told Reuters about 70 militants were involved from two groups, Belmokhtar’s  ‘Those who sign in blood,’ who travelled from Libya, and the lesser known  ‘Movement of the Islamic Youth in the South.’

‘They were carrying heavy weapons including  rifles used by the Libyan army during (Muammar) Gadaffi’s rule,’ he said. ‘They  also had rocket-propelled grenades and machineguns.’

Last night, as the military operation to  rescue those captured continued, a  local worker revealed how the militants  appeared to have a clear  strategy for their prisoners — some of whom even ended  up having  explosives strapped to their chest.

‘The terrorists told us at the very  start  that they would not hurt Muslims but were only interested in the  Christians and  infidels,’ Abdelkader, 53, told the Mail from his home in the nearby town of In  Amenas. ‘”We will kill them,” they said.’

The U.S. government sent an unmanned  surveillance drone to the BP-operated site, near the border with Libya  and 800  miles (1,290 kilometers) from the Algerian capital, but it could do little more  than watch Thursday’s intervention. Algeria’s  army-dominated government,  hardened by decades of fighting Islamist  militants, shrugged aside foreign  offers of help and drove ahead alone.

With the hostage drama entering its second  day Thursday, Algerian security  forces moved in, first with helicopter fire and  then special forces,  according to diplomats, a website close to the militants,  and an  Algerian security official. The government said it was forced to  intervene because the militants were being stubborn and wanted to flee  with  the hostages.

The militants – led by a Mali-based  al-Qaida  offshoot known as the Masked Brigade – suffered losses in  Thursday’s military  assault, but succeeded in garnering a global  audience.

Even  violence-scarred Algerians were stunned  by the brazen hostage-taking  Wednesday, the biggest in northern Africa in years  and the first to  include Americans as targets. Mass fighting in the 1990s had  largely  spared the lucrative oil and gas industry that gives Algeria its  economic independence and regional weight.

The hostage-taking raised questions about  security for sites run by  multinationals that are dotted across Africa’s  largest country. It also  raised the prospect of similar attacks on other  countries allied against the extremist warlords and drug traffickers who rule a  vast patch of  desert across several countries in northwest Africa. Even the  heavy-handed Algerian response may not deter groups looking for  martyrdom and  attention.

Casualty figures in the Algerian  standoff  varied widely. The remote location is extremely hard to reach  and was  surrounded by Algerian security forces – who, like the  militants, are inclined  to advertise their successes and minimize their  failures.

‘An important  number of hostages were freed  and an important number of terrorists were eliminated, and we regret the few  dead and wounded,’ Algeria’s  communications minister, Mohand Said Oubelaid,  told national media,  adding that the ‘terrorists are multinational,’ coming  from several  different countries with the goal of ‘destabilizing Algeria,  embroiling  it in the Mali conflict and damaging its natural gas  infrastructure.’

The official news agency said four hostages  were killed in Thursday’s  operation, two Britons and two Filipinos. Two others,  a Briton and an  Algerian, died Wednesday in an ambush on a bus ferrying foreign  workers  to an airport. Citing hospital officials, the APS news agency said six  Algerians and seven foreigners were injured.

APS said some 600 local workers were safely  freed in the raid – but many of those were reportedly released the day before by  the militants  themselves.

The militants, via a Mauritanian news  website, claimed  that 35 hostages and 15 militants died in the helicopter  strafing. A  spokesman for the Masked Brigade told the Nouakchott Information  Agency  in Mauritania that only seven hostages survived.

By nightfall, Algeria’s government said the  raid was over. But the whereabouts of the rest of the plant workers was  unclear.

President Obama and British Prime Minister  David Cameron spoke on the phone to  share their confusion. White House Press  Secretary Jay Carney said the  Obama administration was ‘seeking clarity from  the government of  Algeria.’

An unarmed American surveillance  drone  soared overhead as the Algerian forces closed in, U.S. officials  said. The U.S.  offered military assistance Wednesday to help rescue the  hostages but the  Algerian government refused, a U.S. official said in  Washington. He spoke on  condition of anonymity because he was not  authorized to speak publicly about  the offer.

Militants earlier said they were holding  seven Americans, but the administration  confirmed only that Americans were  among those taken. The U.S.  government was in contact with American businesses  across North Africa  and the Middle East to help them guard against the  possibility of  copycat attacks

BP, the  Norwegian company Statoil and the  Algerian state oil company Sonatrach,  operate the gas field and a Japanese  company, JGC Corp, provides  services for the facility.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe protested  the military raid as an act that  ‘threatened the lives of the hostages,’  according to a spokesman. Jean-Christophe Gray, a spokesman for Cameron, said  Britain was not informed in advance of the raid.

Diplomats  privately described the fiasco as  the most serious hostage crisis since  Iran seized 52 American officials in  1979.

Norway’s prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg,  summed up the anger and frustration felt by Western governments and said too he  had been in constant contact with  Mr Sellal.

‘My message was  that concern for the lives  and health of the hostages had to go first,’  he said. ‘That was also the  attitude of David Cameron. Our desire was  that they showed restraint.

‘We all feel deep anxiety of not knowing what  has happened to our citizens and the other hostages. I feel for the families.  What has happened is abominable.’

The militant group believed to be holding the  hostages has claimed that it carried out the attack in retaliation for the  French military intervention against Al Qaeda-backed rebels in neighbouring  Mali.

Source: The Daily Mail


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