A deadly standoff is taking place at a natural gas facility in the Sahara Desert, where Islamic militants are holding dozens of oil company employees hostage, and Algerian soldiers are attempting to free them. We're updating this developing story as it happens, and there are many conflicting and unconfirmed reports, but read our original post below for more background:
Updates (All times Eastern):
1:00 p.m.: The White House says it strongly condemns the attack, but cannot confirm that it is linked to al Qaeda. Still much confusion and uncertainty.
12:55 p.m.: Updates from the BBC: French President Francois Hollande says the situation is still unclear, but justifies his decision to intervene in Mali. Also, the kidnappers said there were 3 Belgians still alive as hostages, but the Belgian foreign ministry says it doesn't believe there were any Belgians there at all.
12:53 p.m.: The image below is a "glorifying" photo of the plant and Belmokhtar that said to be circulating on jihadist websites, suggesting that he may have been "martyred" in the operation. (via The Guardian)
12:48 p.m.: One of the many things that is still unclear is who exactly is responsible for the attack on the facility. The group that is said to have taken credit (and has been in contact with media outlets in Mauritania) calls it self the al-Mua'qi'oon Biddam Brigade ("Those who Sign with Blood"). They are believed to be an offshoot of the "Masked Brigade," which is itself an offshoot of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an "affiliate" of al-Qaeda that operates all across the western Sahara Desert.
The reason for all the spin-offs and breakaway groups is often disagreements over ideology or tactics, even though most of these terrorist bands want to remain under the larger, anti-Western umbrella of al-Qaeda. AQIM has played a major role in the insurgency in Mali, and also reportedly trained fighters for Boko Haram in Nigeria.
The Masked Brigade was allegedly formed by a man named Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a colorful character who is missing one eye and was once a member of AQIM, before going off on his own. For the last several years, Belmokhtar has lead a gang of militants that has kidnapped many Westerners in Africa and held them for ransom, in addition to other crimes like cigarette smuggling. That earned him the nickname "Mr. Marlboro." To Canadian officials, however, he is known as "The Uncatchable" after kidnapping and later releasing two Canadian diplomats in 2008 and evading capture ever since. Belmokhtar also goes by the name Khalid Abu al Abba.
That alias may have added to the confusion of the current situation, because the man credited with being the spokesperson for the Algerian kidnappers was named Abu Al Baraa. Al Baraa, reportedly died in the Algerian counterattack this morning and was identified in at least one media report as the "lead kidnapper." Belmokhtar (or Al Abba) is still being consider the mastermind behind the raid, but it isn't known if he actually took part in it, is actually Al Baraa, or if he's even still alive.
11:51 a.m.: Cameron has spoken to both President Obama and French President Hollande about the situation in Algeria.
11:30 a.m.: A spokesperson for UK Prime Minister David Cameron says he was no informed about the operation before it began, but wishes he had been. Cameron "told the Algerian PM in a call that he would have preferred to have been informed beforehand" and is "extremely concerned" about the "very grave and dangerous situation." The United States has dispatched a surveillance drone to observe the situation at the plant, according to CBS News.
11:13 a.m.: Kyodo News reports that Japan has asked Algeria to stop any military operations before more hostages are killed. The Algerian news service claims it's already over and the plant is under military control.
11:01 a.m.: It may not turn out as bad as first assumed, but everyone is naturally assuming the worst:
Understand UK government working on the assuption that deaths of hostages in #Algeria "likely" given nature of the military operation— Chris Ship (@chrisshipitv) January 17, 2013
10:38 a.m.: Algerian media (via the BBC) now state that there as many as 600 Algerian workers at the site, and they are now free—although they may not have ever been treated as hostages by the militants.
10:22 a.m.: Officials in Ireland say that an Irish citizen who was being held captive has been freed and made contact with his family. There's been no mention of a Irish citizen being rescued or escaping before now.
10:11 a.m.: The Algerian news service APS says that the four hostages who freed are a Kenyan, a French, and two Scottish citizens. They've also reported that the complex is now under military control, but again, none of these reports can be independently confirmed. The possibility has been raised that there only 7 hostages left, but that's because most of them escaped and were not actually killed. Again, it's a wait and see situation.
9:45 a.m.: An update from the American side of things, via ABC's Martha Raddatz:
Snr US official tells mesituation remains unclear in Algeria. They are trying to get clarity but just don't know anything for sure— Martha Raddatz (@MarthaRaddatz) January 17, 2013
secdef to me on algeria "we are going to look at..how best to addrss + how can we bring r military assets to bear in order to deal with it"— Martha Raddatz (@MarthaRaddatz) January 17, 2013
9:39 a.m.: The BBC reports, via Algeria's state news agency, says four hostages have been freed and flown out from the local airport.
9:25 a.m.: The kidnappers say that 34 of the 41 foreign hostages were killed, and that of the seven who are still alive, there are three Belgians, two Americans, one Japanese, and one Briton. Reuters says that six hostages and eight rebels were killed, but that they can't confirm that beyond an unidentified "local source."
9:01 a.m.: The Guardian has put together a nice, interactive map showing the facility and a timeline of events.
9:00 a.m.: There seems to be a lot of debate about the sourcing of the dead hostages reports. Both The Guardian and Al Jazzera are sourcing Mauritania's ANI news service, which is getting its updates from the hostage takers themselves. Reuters is also sourcing them, however they also say a witness on the ground has told them there are "many dead." There is one report that the Algerian Foreign Minister had denied that there was any attack at all, calling the air strike a "complete fantasy." However, the British foreign office has confirmed that an operation was underway, and CBS News credits a "diplomatic source" as confirming that some hostages are dead. Since the beginning of the story, there have numerous conflicting numbers on the total number of hostages, the number of foreigners, the number of kidnappers, the number of escapees, and now, the number of casualties.
8:36 a.m.: Reuters also reporting that almost 50 people, including 34 hostages, were killed when Algerian helicopters bombarded vehicles carrying the hostages from one part of the facility to another. According to Al Jazeera, the "lead kidnapper", Abu Al Baraa, is among the dead.
8:14 a.m.: Al Jazeera is now reporting that 35 hostages have been killed along with some of the hostage takers. All reports seem to agree that the Algerians attacked the facility using helicopters, but all the casualty reports seem to be coming from the kidnappers themselves and remain unconfirmed.
7:50 a.m.: via The Guardian, Mauritania's Nouakchott news agency is reporting that some of the hostages were killed by bombing from Algerian forces. That report comes from the hostage takers, and is unconfirmed.
7:30 a.m.: Numerous reports say the facility is currently under attack from Algerian forces, who may have wounded some of the hostages, while still more have escaped. Some Americans are believed to be among a new group of 20 hostages who got away. We'll keep updating this story as details become available.
Original Post: Little noted in yesterday's attack on an Algerian gas facility was that in addition to roughly 41 foreigners being held hostage there, Islamic militants had also detained nearly 150 Algerian employees who live in housing near the site. On Thursday morning, it was announced that thirty of them had escaped from their captors. (Update: Algerian media is now saying that 15 of the foreign workers escaped as well.)
The attack on the installation was claimed to be carried out by offshoot members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a large and heavily-armed terrorist group that has launched operations all across the Sahara Desert region, and over the last year has come to take control of most of northern Mali. The group said it was retaliation for France's recent military efforts in Mali, after they sent troops and warplanes to halt the militants advance toward the capital. They are also upset at Algeria, for allowing France to use to their airspace to carry out the operations. Both Mali and Algeria are former French colonies. This new incident is raising concern that's France attempt to help the situation in Mali, may inadvertently turned a small local conflict in a larger, regional (and possibly international) war.
The In Amenas gas facility is a joint project between Algeria's state run oil company, Statoil of Norway, and the British oil giant BP. Hundreds of workers live and work at the site, including American, French, British, Irish, and Japanese citizens, who were all reportedly among the hostages.
Mauritania's news service reports that Algeria soldiers attempted to enter the installation last night, but were repelled by the militants who continue to control the entire area. The group had demanded that France end its operations in Mali in exchange for the safe return of the hostages. They've also reportedly asked for safe passage out of the facility, with their hostages.