Islamist militants are offering to free two American hostages held captive at an Algerian gas field in exchange for the release of two renowned terrorists jailed in the United States.
The attempt to negotiate comes after a US citizen and up to 12 Britons, who were kidnapped with dozens of other foreign oil workers on Wednesday, were killed in a botched rescue mission by Algerian forces.
As many as 60 foreign hostages remain unaccounted, as the bloody siege continues into its third day, though Algeria’s news service said some could be hidden throughout the sprawling desert site.
Yesterday’s air raid, which was carried out in Algerian helicopters and special forces without the prior knowledge of the US government, was meant to wipe out the al-Qaeda-linked militants and free the 132 foreigners from at least 10 countries who were being held, but instead left scores of people dead, injured or missing.
Militants said seven Americans had been taken hostage and it was reported that two of them escaped unharmed yesterday.
The Associated Press said today that kidnappers wanted to swap two American hostages still in captivity for two prominent terror figures in jail in the US, according to a Mauritanian website.
One of the two terrorists the captors want freed is Omar Abdel Rahman, who masterminded the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The other is a Pakistani scientist convicted of shooting at two U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
‘The Blind Sheikh’, as Abdel Rahman is often known, is currently serving a life sentence at the Butner Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, North Carolina.
The offer, according to a Mauritanian news site that frequently broadcasts dispatches from groups linked to al-Qaida, came from Moktar Belmoktar, an extremist commander based in Mali who apparently masterminded the operation.
Five other Americans who had been at the vast Ain Amenas complex were able to avoid being taken captive when the terrorists first attacked early on Wednesday. Neither the Obama administration nor the British government was aware of the Algerian military’s raid ahead of time.
Algeria‘s news service said special forces had resumed negotiations with militants today as foreign leaders scrambled to find out the fates of their citizens.
According to Reuters, the kidnappers were also threatening to attack other energy installations after the bloody raid.
The American who was killed in the raid is from Texas although his or her name has not been released nor any other details.
A U.S. C-130 military aircraft is evacuating between 10 and 20 people caught up in the hostage-taking, a U.S. defense official told CNN on Friday.
They will be flown to U.S. facilities in Europe, the official said, and the condition of those who are injured will be assessed on the flight.
‘We just don’t know what kind of injuries they have,’ he said.
A total of 18 militants were killed and the plant’s living quarters were secured, according to the Algerian government news agency, which cited security officials.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was briefed early on Friday, a senior defense official told The Associated Press, but offered no other details because ‘we view it as a sensitive, ongoing situation.’
Mr Panetta said in London that there was ‘no justification for the kidnapping and murder of innocent people’ in Algeria, and vowed the US government was ‘working around the clock to ensure the safe return of our citizens.’
He warned terrorists in Algeria that there was ‘no place to hide’ and said that American authorities were working closely with Britain and other nations ‘to assess precisely what was happening on the ground.’
He added that ‘regardless of the motivation of hostage takers there was no justification for the kidnap and murder of innocent people going about their daily lives.’
‘Terrorists should be on notice that they will find no sanctuary or refuge; not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere. Those who will want only to attack will have no place to hide,’ he said.
Instead of freeing the dozens of hostages, the raid resulted in bloody chaos at the isolated plant 800 miles south of the capital, Algiers, leaving the fate of many of the captives and the fighters uncertain. In launching its assault, Algeria also ignored offers of help from the SAS and American special forces.
‘We asked them not to go in with all guns blazing and they just did it anyway,’ said one London official. ‘They insisted this was their sovereign territory and it was their operation.’
French sources said the decision to go in was taken because the terrorists were executing hostages. Last night, after a fierce day of fighting, Algerian officials said the rescue operation was over. They said Tahar Ben Cheneb, a prominent commander in the region, was among the dead militants.
The 11 bodies of gunmen found on Thursday comprised three Egyptians, two Tunisians, two Libyans, a Malian and a Frenchman and all were assumed to have been hostage-takers, a security source told Reuters. Algeria state news agency APS said the group had planned to take the hostages to Mali.
On Friday, the source said 18 militants had now been found dead.
A source said yesterday that 30 hostages were killed, of whom the nationalities of 15 had been established. Of these, eight were Algerian and seven were foreigners, including two British, two Japanese and a French national. One Briton was killed when the terrorists seized the gas compound on Wednesday. The number of foreigners unaccounted for and feared dead is now at 60.
An Irish engineer who survived said he saw four jeeps full of hostages blown up by Algerian troops whose commanders said they moved in about 30 hours after the siege began because the gunmen had demanded to be allowed to take their captives abroad.
A French hostage employed by a French catering company said Algerian military forces had found some British hostages hiding in a roof space and were combing the sprawling In Amenas site for others when he was escorted away by the military.
‘I hid in my room for nearly 40 hours, under the bed. I put boards up pretty much all round,’ Alexandre Berceaux told Europe 1. ‘I didn’t know how long I was going to stay there … I was afraid. I could see myself already ending up in a pine box.’
The Japanese government said on Friday that three of its citizens escaped but 14 were still unaccounted for and their fate was unclear.
BP said there was a ‘small number of BP employees’ at the facility ‘whose current location and situation remain uncertain.’ It added that 11 employees and hundreds of staff at other oil companies were flown out of the area yesterday and also described the situation as ‘ongoing.’
Fierce gun battles erupted at midday on Thursday as troops moved in on the Islamists and there were claims that hostages had been used as human shields. An eyewitness described a scene of carnage, saying: ‘There were bodies all over the ground.’ Another spoke of Algerian forces firing at ‘anything that moved’.
The Obama administration appeared to be in the dark on Thursday about the hostage situation at the natural gas plant deep in the Sahara Desert. An administrative official told the Associated Press that the U.S. was not aware of the raid to free the hostages in advance.
The administration was offering no details about how many American hostages had been taken and whether they were still in captivity – or even alive. A source told the AP that while some U.S. citizens escaped, others remained missing or unaccounted for.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said U.S. counterterrorism officials were in touch with their Algerian counterparts and that she planned to speak on Thursday with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal for the second time in as many days. She made a vague reference to ongoing U.S. ‘planning,’ without elaborating.
‘The security of our Americans who are held hostage is our highest priority,’ Clinton told reporters. ‘Because of the fluidity and the fact that there is a lot of planning going on, I cannot give you any further details.
‘This is a serious and sensitive situation,’ Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in England. Little said military officials were actively seeking information, and that Panetta had been briefed by senior military officials.
Ahead of the raid, U.S. officials had been urging the Algerians to be cautious in their actions, but did not know a rescue mission was planned, said the administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Militants earlier said they were holding seven Americans, but the administration confirmed only that Americans were among those taken.
‘We are deeply concerned about any loss of innocent life and are seeking clarity from the government of Algeria,’ White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
During her conversation with Algeria’s prime minister on Wednesday, Clinton expressed Washington’s ‘willingness to be helpful,’ State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. They also discussed what type of assistance might be needed, Nuland added, but declined to provide details.
A local worker said from his home on Thursday that the Islamist gunmen of the ‘Battalion of Blood’ told the terrified staff that they would not harm Muslims but would kill ‘Christians and infidels.’
Algerian security specialist Anis Rahmani told Reuters about 70 militants were involved from two groups, Belmokhtar’s ‘Those who sign in blood,’ who travelled from Libya, and the lesser known ‘Movement of the Islamic Youth in the South.’
‘They were carrying heavy weapons including rifles used by the Libyan army during (Muammar) Gadaffi’s rule,’ he said. ‘They also had rocket-propelled grenades and machineguns.’
Last night, as the military operation to rescue those captured continued, a local worker revealed how the militants appeared to have a clear strategy for their prisoners – some of whom even ended up having explosives strapped to their chest.
‘The terrorists told us at the very start that they would not hurt Muslims but were only interested in the Christians and infidels,’ Abdelkader, 53, told the Mail from his home in the nearby town of In Amenas. ‘”We will kill them,” they said.’
The U.S. government sent an unmanned surveillance drone to the BP-operated site, near the border with Libya and 800 miles (1,290 kilometers) from the Algerian capital, but it could do little more than watch Thursday’s intervention. Algeria’s army-dominated government, hardened by decades of fighting Islamist militants, shrugged aside foreign offers of help and drove ahead alone.
With the hostage drama entering its second day Thursday, Algerian security forces moved in, first with helicopter fire and then special forces, according to diplomats, a website close to the militants, and an Algerian security official. The government said it was forced to intervene because the militants were being stubborn and wanted to flee with the hostages.
The militants — led by a Mali-based al-Qaida offshoot known as the Masked Brigade — suffered losses in Thursday’s military assault, but succeeded in garnering a global audience.
Even violence-scarred Algerians were stunned by the brazen hostage-taking Wednesday, the biggest in northern Africa in years and the first to include Americans as targets. Mass fighting in the 1990s had largely spared the lucrative oil and gas industry that gives Algeria its economic independence and regional weight.
The hostage-taking raised questions about security for sites run by multinationals that are dotted across Africa’s largest country. It also raised the prospect of similar attacks on other countries allied against the extremist warlords and drug traffickers who rule a vast patch of desert across several countries in northwest Africa. Even the heavy-handed Algerian response may not deter groups looking for martyrdom and attention.
Casualty figures in the Algerian standoff varied widely. The remote location is extremely hard to reach and was surrounded by Algerian security forces — who, like the militants, are inclined to advertise their successes and minimize their failures.
‘An important number of hostages were freed and an important number of terrorists were eliminated, and we regret the few dead and wounded,’ Algeria’s communications minister, Mohand Said Oubelaid, told national media, adding that the ‘terrorists are multinational,’ coming from several different countries with the goal of ‘destabilizing Algeria, embroiling it in the Mali conflict and damaging its natural gas infrastructure.’
The official news agency said four hostages were killed in Thursday’s operation, two Britons and two Filipinos. Two others, a Briton and an Algerian, died Wednesday in an ambush on a bus ferrying foreign workers to an airport. Citing hospital officials, the APS news agency said six Algerians and seven foreigners were injured.
APS said some 600 local workers were safely freed in the raid — but many of those were reportedly released the day before by the militants themselves.
The militants, via a Mauritanian news website, claimed that 35 hostages and 15 militants died in the helicopter strafing. A spokesman for the Masked Brigade told the Nouakchott Information Agency in Mauritania that only seven hostages survived.
By nightfall, Algeria’s government said the raid was over. But the whereabouts of the rest of the plant workers was unclear.
President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke on the phone to share their confusion. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the Obama administration was ‘seeking clarity from the government of Algeria.’
An unarmed American surveillance drone soared overhead as the Algerian forces closed in, U.S. officials said. The U.S. offered military assistance Wednesday to help rescue the hostages but the Algerian government refused, a U.S. official said in Washington. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the offer.
Militants earlier said they were holding seven Americans, but the administration confirmed only that Americans were among those taken. The U.S. government was in contact with American businesses across North Africa and the Middle East to help them guard against the possibility of copycat attacks
BP, the Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian state oil company Sonatrach, operate the gas field and a Japanese company, JGC Corp, provides services for the facility.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe protested the military raid as an act that ‘threatened the lives of the hostages,’ according to a spokesman. Jean-Christophe Gray, a spokesman for Cameron, said Britain was not informed in advance of the raid.
Diplomats privately described the fiasco as the most serious hostage crisis since Iran seized 52 American officials in 1979.
Norway’s prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, summed up the anger and frustration felt by Western governments and said too he had been in constant contact with Mr Sellal.
‘My message was that concern for the lives and health of the hostages had to go first,’ he said. ‘That was also the attitude of David Cameron. Our desire was that they showed restraint.
‘We all feel deep anxiety of not knowing what has happened to our citizens and the other hostages. I feel for the families. What has happened is abominable.’
The militant group believed to be holding the hostages has claimed that it carried out the attack in retaliation for the French military intervention against Al Qaeda-backed rebels in neighbouring Mali.
Source: The Daily Mail