January 18, 2013 10:17 pm

Britain and Japan criticise plant rescue

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Britain and Japan have sharply criticised Algeria over its handling of the raid to free hostages from a gas installation in the east of the country, amid concerns that it did not consult other nations before mounting their assault.

In London, David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, expressed “disappointment” over Algeria’s decision to launch an attack on Islamists holding British hostages without his prior knowledge.

“I regret we were not informed in advance,” Mr Cameron told British parliamentarians. He pointed out that the UK had “considerable expertise” in dealing with hostage situations.

In Tokyo, Japan’s foreign ministry summoned the Algerian ambassador to demand answers over the operation. Japan said on Friday that up to 14 of its citizens were still unaccounted for at the In Amenas complex. A foreign ministry official said the Algerian ambassador was summoned to a meeting “over the incident,” without revealing what was said.

France, which also had its own nationals being held hostage at the In Amenas installation, took a different tack, praising the Algerian action. Manuel Valls, France’s interior minister, was reported as saying that Algeria should not be criticised over its handling of the operation. “I salute the engagement of the Algerians, because it is they have who have been fully hit by the terrorism.”

France’s conciliatory line may partly be driven by its difficult post-colonial relationship with Algeria. French officials say President Francois Hollande has made a big effort to try and improve relations with Algeria in his first six months in office.

But also on the mind of those in Paris is France’s military intervention in Mali and the importance of Algeria in its plans. The North African country has given French jets the right to fly in Algerian airspace and tightened security along the border between Algeria and Mali, potentially disrupting the movement of regional jihadists.

“I can understand why someone like Cameron should be grieving forn the loss of British life in this operation and the lack of competence shown by the Algerians,” said Francois Heisbourg of the French Foundation for Strategic Research. “However, Algeria’s position on the Malian intervention is absolutely critical. They have moved from being a state that was tolerant of the jihadists in the south of the country to one that has suddenly created real difficulties for them. That is why France has been studiously non-judgmental.”

Algeria, for its part, stood firmly by its decision to storm the facility on Thursday. “Those who think we will negotiate with terrorists are delusional,” the communications minister, Mohand Saïd Oublaïd, said. “Those who think we will surrender to their blackmail are delusional.”

Nigel Inkster, a terrorism expert for the International Institute for Strategic Studies said it was no surprise that Algeria mounted the operation without consulting other states. “The Algerians are very, very prickly about their sovereignty,” he said. “I don’t think they were remotely inclined to consider or accept any of the advice or capabilities that were on offer.”

However severe the criticism of Algeria may be this weekend, international oil majors may ultimately want to remain in the country because of Algeria’s rich oil and gas reserves.

“Even if this killing has an impact on oil and gas, the Algerian government is betting on time – in time people will forget,” said Haithem Rabani, an independent analyst in Algiers familiar with the regime’s thinking. “Mali is an international war, and in any war there are all kinds of casualties.”

Additional reporting by Jonathan Soble in Tokyo and Borzou Daragahi in London

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