Conflicting claims on Algerian raid

2013-01-17 21:46

Algiers - Algerian forces launched a military assault on Thursday at a natural gas plant in the Sahara Desert, trying to free dozens of foreign hostages held by militants who have ties to Mali's rebel Islamists, diplomats and an Algerian security official said.

Yet information on the Algerian operation varied hugely and the conflicting reports that emerged from the remote area were impossible to verify independently.

What did leak out, prompted governments around the world to express deep concerns about the way Algeria tried to rescue the hostages, who were from at least nine different countries.

The Algerian government said it was forced to intervene due to the militants' stubbornness and their desire to escape with the hostages. The communications minister said there were casualties in the military operation on Thursday, but gave no details.

"An important number of hostages were freed and an important number of terrorists were neutralised and we regret the few dead and wounded, but we don't have numbers," Minister Mohand Said Oubelaid said on national radio. "The operation to free the rest of the hostages still inside [the plant] is ongoing."

Islamists from the Masked Brigade, who have been speaking through a Mauritanian news outlet, said Algerian helicopters opened fire as the militants tried to leave the vast Ain Amenas energy complex with their hostages.

They claimed that 35 hostages and 15 militants died in the strafing and only seven hostages survived.


Algeria's official news service, meanwhile, earlier claimed that 600 local workers were freed in the raid and half of the foreigners being

In Washington, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the Obama administration was "concerned about reports of loss of life and are seeking clarity from the government of Algeria".

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe protested the military raid as an act that "threatened the lives of the hostages", according to a spokesperson.

Jean-Christophe Gray, a spokesperson for British Prime Minister David Cameron, said Britain was not informed in advance of the raid but described the situation as "very grave and serious". French President Francois Hollande called it a "dramatic" situation involving dozens of hostages.

An unarmed American surveillance drone soared overhead as the Algerian forces closed in, US officials said.

The US offered military assistance on Wednesday to help rescue the hostages - whose numbers varied wildly from dozens to hundreds - but the Algerian government refused, a US official said in Washington.

Mali and al-Qaeda specialist Mathieu Guidere said Algeria's decisive response was in keeping with its usual response to terrorism.

"The message is 'We will terrorise the terrorists,'" he said, adding that the Algerian government had prioritised protecting its gas fields throughout the worst of a violent Islamist insurgency in the 1990s.

Guidere said Algeria's refusal to accept help was also normal.

"They never accept any military help," he said. "They want to do it their way."