Last updated: January 16, 2013 11:11 pm

Militants seize gas workers in Algeria

Gunmen believed to be Islamist militants kidnapped dozens of expatriate workers on Wednesday at a natural gas facility in southeastern Algeria jointly operated by BP and Statoil. Reports said up to three people, one of them British, were killed in the raid.

With French ground forces moving into action in neighbouring Mali, there are fears that the hostage-taking is in retaliation for the intervention, aimed at pushing Islamist groups back from their advances on the south of the country.

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Local news outlets reported that Algerian military personnel were surrounding the In Amenas facility, which is 1,300km from Algiers, the capital, and 100km from the Libyan border, and attempting to negotiate with the kidnappers. A member of an Islamist group calling itself the Masked Brigade claimed responsibility to Mauritania’s official news agency, saying it was in revenge for Algeria’s support for the French campaign.

The group is apparently led by Moktar Belmoktar, an Algerian former al-Qaeda leader and smuggler dubbed “The Uncatchable” by French intelligence.

The Algerian interior ministry said the raid began at 5am with the ambush of a bus carrying employees from the gas plant to the nearby airport but the attackers – three vehicles of heavily armed men – were driven off. “After their failed attempt, the terrorist group headed for the natural gas plant and took a number of workers with foreign nationalities hostage,” the ministry said.

Algerian officials said at least nine people were taken hostage but some local media reported that up to 41 foreigners had been seized. British, Japanese, French, US, Norwegian and Irish nationals were among the hostages, according to diplomats and media.

Downing St said that David Cameron, UK prime minister, had spoken to his Algerian counterpart Abdelmalek Sellal. “The ongoing incident has involved several British nationals,” a spokesman for Mr Cameron said. “We are working with BP to support the families of staff that are involved.”

Algeria has long feared that an upsurge in militant activity could threaten its oil and gas-rich southern region. The country is the third-largest gas supplier to the European market and one of the world’s biggest producers of liquefied natural gas.

William Hague, UK foreign secretary, said a rapid deployment team had been sent to reinforce embassy and consular staff in Algeria. The government’s emergency response committee, Cobra, would continue to meet.

The US state department said several American citizens were among the hostages. Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, has spoken with Mr Sellal about the attack.

Leon Panetta, US defence secretary, said the Obama administration “will take all necessary and proper steps” to deal with the “terrorist attack”. He added: “It is a very serious matter when Americans are taken hostage along with others. I want to assure the American people that the United States will take all necessary and proper steps that are required to deal with this situation.”

BP confirmed a “security incident” at the plant but disclosed no further details.

Jens Stoltenberg, Norway’s prime minister, said 13 Norwegian employees of Statoil were also among the hostages at the facility. The official Algerian press agency reported that a security official was killed and seven were wounded, including two expatriates who were taken to a hospital. Other reports put the death toll at three.

The rare abductions underscored security worries in north Africa and the Sahel in the face of a France-led attempt to crush an Islamist insurgency in northern Mali. But it remained unclear whether the kidnappings, which took place at the In Amenas facility near the Libyan border, were connected to the war across its southwest border.

Companies operating in Algeria’s south have long been subject to threats of kidnapping, or worse, from militants.

The facility feels more like a military encampment than a gas plant. Its perimeter is patrolled every night by soldiers from a nearby army base. A military convoy accompanies all buses transporting staff to and from the local airport. Vehicles entering the site are fully searched and workers who venture off-site get their own armed escort.

The plant has a fleet of jeeps but cannot use them at night because of the threat of carjackings by local bandits. Expat staff can enjoy a gym, a solar-powered indoor swimming pool and a football pitch. There are regular volleyball tournaments and waffle parties – a Nordic ritual – for the Norwegian employees. But movements are restricted and expats cannot visit local towns.

The security regime is imposed not by the companies operating In Amenas but the Algerian government, worried about the impact attacks on foreign oil workers would have on its reputation as a destination for oil and gas investment.

Additional reporting by Geoff Dyer in Washington

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