Last updated: January 17, 2013 11:37 pm

Algeria in bloody raid to free hostages

An undated handout picture released by the BP shows their operation at the In Amenas field in the Sahara desert©AFP

BP's operation at the In Amenas facility

Algerian security forces armed with attack helicopters and rockets on Thursday stormed the remote natural gas facility where Islamists were holding dozens of foreigners hostage in a bloody show of force likely to resonate across the region.

Reports from the facility, operated by BP and Statoil, were fragmentary but militants claimed dozens of people had been killed in the raid in addition to several hostages killed a day earlier when the standoff began. Other reports varied, with some putting the death toll at about 30, citing Algerian security sources, but accounts of which nationalities had been killed or survived were confused.

Algeria’s official press agency said nearly 600 Algerians and four foreigners – two Britons from Scotland, a Kenyan and a French citizen – had been freed in the operation. Ireland’s foreign ministry said an Irish national who had been taken hostage, Stephen McFaul, had also been freed. Bob Dudley, BP chief executive, said the company had been informed of the raid but had no details about casualties.

“The armed forces intervened in the gas complex where we were held and managed to intervene and protect the hostages, but some were killed in the process,” one hostage who escaped told Al Jazeera.

Algerian communications minister Mohand Belaid Oussaid defended the raid in a televised appearance on Thursday evening. “In the face of terrorism, yesterday, today and tomorrow, there will be no negotiations, no blackmail, no respite in the fight against terrorism,” he said.

The raid began less than 30 hours after several truckloads of militants apparently led by a radical Islamist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar seized the facility near the Libyan border.

UK officials said they were not informed about the operation before it was launched. David Cameron, UK prime minister, postponed a long-awaited speech on Britain’s relationship with Europe, describing the crisis in Algeria a “difficult, dangerous and potentially very bad situation”.

Foreign office minister Alistair Burt said UK officials were pressing the Algerian authorities for access to UK nationals caught up in the violence, “in order to help with repatriation and evacuation’’. He said: “Although details have yet to become final, I’m afraid we should be under no illusion that there will be some bad and distressing news to follow from this terrorist attack.”

The White House on Thursday condemned the attack on the BP facility and said it was closely monitoring the situation and was in contact with the Algerian authorities and international partners, as well as with BP’s security office in London.

“Unfortunately, the best information we have at this time, as I said, indicates that US citizens are among the hostages. But we don’t have at this point more details to provide to you. We’re certainly concerned about reports of loss of life and are seeking clarity from the government of Algeria,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary.

Shinzo Abe, Japanese PM, on Thursday asked his Algerian counterpart Abdelmalek Sellal to stop the attack. Mr Sellal only said that he could not confirm the details of the hostages freed in the operation, according to Japanese officials.

Jens Stoltenberg, the Norwegian prime minister, said nine Norwegians remained unaccounted for. While he said he would have preferred to see the Algerians exercise restraint militarily, Mr Stoltenberg stopped short of criticising the operation.

Statoil confirmed that five of its 17 employees were safe and on their way back to Norway. “We cannot currently confirm what the situation is for the remaining nine Norwegians who are involved in the situation,” Helge Lund, Statoil’s chief executive, said.

A tribal leader near the In Amenas site said the fighting had died down by Thursday evening but the stand-off was still ongoing: “For the time being, the security forces have evacuated the bodies of four terrorists killed during the assault,” Abbas Bouaamama told the Tout sur l’Algerie website. “A fifth has been arrested. But there are still terrorists inside the camp.”

The Algerian raid seemed calculated to send a message to the Islamic groups circulating throughout north Africa.

Algeria, the third largest gas supplier to Europe and one of the world’s biggest producers of liquefied natural gas, has been nervously watching the growing footprint of the Islamists since the 2011 Nato-backed uprising that overthrew Colonel Muammer Gaddafi in Libya. That set in motion a chain of events that led to the establishment of a self-declared Islamic state in northern Mali dominated by al-Qaeda affiliates.

Algeria has long feared that an upsurge in militancy could threaten its oil and gas-rich south. It had tried to build links with the groups in Mali before the French-led military intervention that appears to have prompted Wednesday’s gas installation attack.

Algeria map

The militants had been trying to move the hostages in vehicles when they came under attack from the helicopters, according to the Mauritanian ANI news agency, which has had regular contacts with Islamist groups in the region over many years. Various media reported that the militants said they were still holding at least half a dozen foreigners after the Algerian army attack.

The militants, who claim to be members of Katibat Moulathamine, or the Masked Brigade, originally claimed to have taken 41 foreigners and well over 100 locals hostage after attacking the facility on Wednesday.

Additional reporting by Hugh Carnegy in Paris, Geoff Dyer in Washington and Richard Milne in Oslo

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