CAIRO — Islamist militants seized a Western-run gas field in Algeria on Wednesday, reportedly taking as many as 41 hostages, including seven Americans, in apparent retaliation for recent French airstrikes against Islamist extremists battling to overthrow neighboring Mali.
At least two people — a British citizen and a French national — were killed in the early morning raid on the In Armenas gas field in eastern Algeria, according to media reports that could not be independently verified. Seven people were reported injured.
A militant group with purported ties to Algeria’s al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the attack, an indication that the war in Mali may be spilling into North Africa. It was unclear exactly how many hostages were taken. The British Foreign Office and the U.S. State Department confirmed that Americans and Britons were among them.
“In order to protect their safety, I’m not going to get into numbers. I’m not going to get into names,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. “I’m not going to get into any further details as we continue to work on this issue.”
A French catering company said that 150 local hires at its Algerian subsidiary were being held at the site. Media reports, however, said militants released the Algerians and were only holding foreigners. Hundreds of soldiers surrounded the complex and Algerian officials, who have battled militants for decades, appeared to rule out talks with the extremists.
“The Algerian authorities will not respond to the demands of the terrorists and will not negotiate,” Algeria’s interior minister, Daho Ould Kablia, told the state news agency.
The ministry said in a statement that a “terrorist group, heavily armed and using three vehicles” launched the assault at 5 a.m. about 60 miles from the Algerian-Libyan border. Militants who claimed they carried out the mission told the Mauritanian media they belonged to the Signed-in Blood Battalion, which is headed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed Algerian militant the French had nicknamed “the Uncatchable.”
Belmokhtar was reportedly once a commander in al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb but split from the group to run his own operations in the Sahara region. He has, however, retained smuggling and other connections with al-Qaida. He funneled insurgents into Iraq to battle U.S. forces and is believed to have been behind the 2008 kidnapping of Robert Fowler, a former Canadian diplomat and U.N. envoy who was held for 130 days.
A 2007 U.S. diplomatic cable described Belmokhtar, who trained in Afghanistan, as “more of a smuggler than an ideological warrior; more of an opportunist and bandit than a jihadi.” A report two years later by the Jamestown Foundation said that Belmokhtar “detached from the Algerian jihad and is pursuing his own vision of jihad in the Sahara.”
Regional news agencies quoted militants as saying the attack was in retribution for Algeria permitting French war planes to use its airspace to attack Islamist fighters in Mali. French military intervention in Mali began this week to repel extremists in the north from advancing south in a bid to turn the West African nation into a jihadist haven that could export terrorism into Europe.
The border region of Mali and Algeria is awash in Islamic fighters and legions of weapons and contraband traffickers. The untamed territory has increasingly alarmed Western officials who fear that al-Qaida and its affiliates will exploit the lawlessness. That concern prompted French military action, which now, however, may have widened the conflict and reinvigorated al-Qaida.
Al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb, which emerged from the remnants of Algeria’s 1990s civil war, is one of the country’s most proficient militant organizations. The group has spread to Mali and, along with its affiliates, including those connected to Belmokhtar, has vowed to strike European targets and stage operations across northern and western Africa.
Their arsenals are believed to have strengthened by heavy weapons looted in Libya during the fall of Moammar Gadhafi. The chaos in Libya also sent new recruits streaming into Algeria and Mali, where last year they helped Tuareg rebels overrun the north of the country following a coup. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has often funded is operations through millions of dollars in kidnapping ransoms.
The gas field complex at In Amenas is a joint venture operated by BP; Statoil, a Norwegian firm; and Sonatrach, the Algerian national oil company. BP said in a statement that “armed individuals are still occupying” the complex, which supplies gas to Europe and Turkey, and workers and contractors are being held by militants.
Japan and Ireland confirmed that its nationals were among the hostages. There also were reports of a Norwegian hostage.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was traveling in Rome, called the assault a “terrorist attack.”
He told reporters: “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.”
(Los Angeles Times staff writers Shashank Bengali and Ken Dilanian in Washington and special correspondent Kim Willsher in Paris contributed to this report.)