Algiers: Thirty Algerian workers and 15 foreigners managed to escape on Thursday from a gas facility in Algeria where they were being held by Islamist extremists along with dozens of Westerners, national media reported.
Algerian troops were besieging the Islamists holding dozens of foreigners at a desert gas field, ignoring the gunmen’s demand to pull back for negotiations to begin over France’s military intervention in neighbouring Mali.
Wednesday’s brazen attack dragged Algiers and several top Western powers with citizens among the hostages into the conflict, stealing momentum from French and government troops battling their way into Mali’s Islamist-held north.
Two people were killed and dozens of others from the United States, Europe and Asia were being held hostage in the kidnapping claimed by veteran Islamist fighter Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian with ties to Al-Qaeda.
“We demand the Algerian army pull out from the area to allow negotiations” to end the drama at the In Amenas gas field near the Libyan border, one of the kidnappers, identified as Abu al-Baraa, told the Al-Jazeera news channel.
He also said Algerian snipers had opened fire at the site where the hostages are being held, injuring a Japanese national.
He confirmed there were “around 41″ hostages from several countries — Norway, France, the United States, Britain, Romania, Colombia, Thailand, Philippines, Ireland, Japan, South Korea, and Germany.
The head of a French catering company that has 150 Algerian employees being held at the plant jointly operated by British oil giant BP, Norway’s Statoil and state-run Algerian energy firm Sonatrach said he had spoken to one on Thursday and the situation was stable.
“I spoke to the branch manager on the phone this morning and it seems there is a status quo in terms of the current situation,” Regis Arnoux, CEO of CIS Catering said on Europe 1 radio.
“It also seems the morale of our team on the ground remains strong,” he said, confirming that the Algerian employees were free to travel throughout the site but not to leave.
“They are a different category of hostage,” he said.
A group calling itself the “Signatories for Blood” claimed responsibility in a statement published by the Mauritanian website Alakhbar.
“Algeria was chosen for this operation to teach (President Abdelaziz) Bouteflika that we will never accept the humiliation of the Algerian people’s honour… by opening Algerian airspace to French planes,” it said.
The group called for an end to the French offensive in Mali, where the former colonial power launched a military offensive a week ago to stop Islamists holding the north from pushing into southern government-controlled territory.
Belmokhtar was until recently one of the leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) but was pushed out of the group towards the end of last year.
Known as “The One-Eyed” — he wears an eyepatch since losing an eye — Belmokhtar has been blamed for previous abductions and the killings of both Algerians and foreigners.
Algeria sent troops to the site, and insisted it would not negotiate with the gunmen.
Condemning the attack as “cold-blooded murder”, British Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed scepticism about claims the raid was retaliation for France’s offensive in Mali.
“That is a convenient excuse, but usually operations like this take longer to plan.
“Whatever excuse is being used by terrorists and murderers, there is no excuse. This is the cold-blooded murder of people going about their business,” he said during a visit to Australia.
France said it was not in a position to confirm if its nationals figured among the hostages.
A worker at the scene had told AFP by phone that the armed group was demanding freedom for 100 Islamists held in Algeria in exchange for the hostages.
“The assailants have demanded that these Islamists be taken to northern Mali,” he said.
The attack took place at dawn on Wednesday, when armed Islamists targeted a bus carrying oil workers to the In Amenas airport, the interior ministry said. Fought off by security escorts, they took hostages at the gas field’s residential compound.
Malian soldiers, backed by French troops meanwhile were involved in overnight clashes with Islamist insurgents ringing the central town of Konna, military sources said Thursday.
Fighting broke out on Wednesday afternoon near the town, whose capture by Islamist rebels last week prompted France to step in to drive back the insurgents who have controlled northern Mali since April 2012.
“We had a second battle with the Islamists some 20 kilometres from Konna,” Captain Saliou Coulibaly told AFP.
“Six Islamists were killed and we managed to seize eight vehicles and destroy some others.”
An Islamist militant told AFP on condition of anonymity that the battle for control of the Konna area was “not finished.”
Rebels who have controled northern Mali since April pushed south into government-held territory last week and seized Konna, about 700 kilometres (400 miles) by road from the capital Bamako, prompting France to intervene.