* Dozens of Westerners, scores of Algerians initially held
* One of the biggest international hostage crises in decades
* Gunmen demanded end to French war in Mali
By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS, Jan 17 Thirty hostages and at least 11
Islamist militants were killed on Thursday when Algerian forces
stormed a desert gas plant in a bid to free many dozens of
Western and local captives, an Algerian security source said.
Details remained scant - including for Western governments,
some of which did little to disguise irritation at being kept in
the dark by Algeria before the raid and its bloody outcome.
Two Japanese, two Britons and a French national were among
at least seven foreigners killed, the source told Reuters. Eight
of the dead hostages were Algerian. The nationalities of the
rest, as well as of perhaps dozens more who escaped, were
Americans, Norwegians, Romanians and an Austrian have also
been mentioned by their governments as having been captured.
Underlining the view of African and Western leaders that
they face a multinational, al Qaeda-linked insurgency across the
Sahara - a conflict that prompted France to send troops to
neighbouring Mali last week - the official source said only two
of the 11 dead militants were Algerian, including their leader.
After an operation that appeared to go on for some eight
hours, after Algeria refused the kidnappers' demand to leave the
country with their hostages, the bodies of three Egyptians, two
Tunisians, two Libyans, a Malian and a Frenchman were found.
So too was that of Taher Ben Cheneb, an Algerian whom the
security official described as a prominent jihadist commander in
The gunmen who seized the important gas facility deep in the
desert before dawn on Wednesday had been demanding France halt
its week-old offensive against Islamist rebels in Mali.
French President Francois Hollande said the hostage drama,
which has raised fears of further militant attacks, showed that
he was right to send more than 1,000 French troops to Mali to
back up a West African force in support of Mali's government.
A Algerian government spokesman, who confirmed only that an
unspecified number of hostages had died, said the tough response
to a "diehard" attitude by the militants showed that, as during
its bloody civil war against Islamists in the 1990s, Algiers
would not negotiate or stand for "blackmail" from "terrorists".
SECURITY IN QUESTION
The apparent ease with which the fighters swooped in from
the dunes to take control of an important energy facility, which
produces some 10 percent of the natural gas on which Algeria
depends for its export income, has raised questions, however,
over the reliability of what was thought to be strong security.
Foreign companies said they were pulling non-essential staff
out of the country, which has only in recent years begun to seem
stable after a decade of blood-letting.
"The embarrassment for the government is great," said
Azzedine Layachi, an Algerian political scientist at New York's
St John's University. "The heart of Algeria's economy is in the
south. where the oil and gas fields are. For this group to have
attacked there, in spite of tremendous security, is remarkable."
Algiers, whose leaders have long had frosty relations with
the former colonial power France and other Western countries,
may also have some explaining to do over its tactics in putting
an end to a hostage crisis whose scale was comparable to few in
recent decades bar those involving Chechen militants in Russia.
Communication Minister Mohamed Said sounded unapologetic,
however. "When the terrorist group insisted on leaving the
facility, taking the foreign hostages with them to neighbouring
states, the order was issued to special units to attack the
position where the terrorists were entrenched," he told state
news agency APS, which said some 600 local workers were freed.
A local source told Reuters six foreign hostages had been
killed along with eight of their captors when troops fired on a
vehicle being used by the gunmen at the Tigantourine plant.
The standoff began when gunmen calling themselves the
Battalion of Blood stormed the facility early on Wednesday
morning. They said they were holding 41 foreigners.
In a rare eyewitness account of Wednesday's raid, a local
man who had escaped from the facility told Reuters the militants
appeared to have inside knowledge of the layout of the complex
and used the language of radical Islam.
"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, said by telephone from his home in
the nearby town of In Amenas. "'We will kill them,' they said."
Mauritanian agency ANI and Qatar-based Al Jazeera said
earlier that 34 captives and 15 militants had been killed when
government forces fired at a vehicle from helicopters.
BAD NEWS EXPECTED
British Prime Minister David Cameron said people should
prepare for bad news about the hostages. He earlier called his
Algerian counterpart to express his concern at what he called a
"very grave and serious" situation, his spokesman said.
"The Algerians are aware that we would have preferred to
have been consulted in advance," the spokesman added.
Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said he had been
told by his Algerian counterpart that the action had started at
around noon. He said they had tried to find a solution through
the night, but that it had not worked.
"The Algerian prime minister said they felt they had no
choice but to go in now," he said.
The incident dramatically raises the stakes in the French
military campaign in neighbouring Mali, where hundreds of French
paratroopers and marines are launching a ground offensive
against Islamist rebels after air strikes began last week.
"What is happening in Algeria justifies all the more the
decision I made in the name of France to intervene in Mali in
line with the U.N. charter," Hollande said, adding that things
seemed to have taken a "dramatic" turn.
He said earlier that an unspecified number of French
nationals were among the hostages. A French national was also
among the hostage takers, a local source told Reuters. A large
number of people from the former French colony live in France.
Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said the
kidnappers were loyal to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran Islamist
guerrilla who fought in Afghanistan and set up his own group in
the Sahara after falling out with other local al Qaeda leaders.
A holy warrior-cum-smuggler dubbed "The Uncatchable" by
French intelligence and "Mister Marlboro" by some locals for his
illicit cigarette-running business, Belmokhtar's links to those
who seized towns across northern Mali last year are unclear.
Britain said one of its citizens was killed in the initial
storming on Wednesday and "a number" of others were held.
The militants had said seven Americans were among their
hostages. The White House said it believed Americans were among
those held but U.S. officials could not confirm the number.
"This is an ongoing situation and we are seeking clarity,"
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
Norway's Statoil, which runs the plant with BP
of Britain and Algeria's state energy company, said it
had no word on nine of its Norwegian staff who had been held,
but that three Algerian employees were now free.
BP said some of its staff were being held but would not say
how many or their nationalities.
Japanese media said five workers from Japanese engineering
firm JGC Corp. were held, a number the company did not
confirm. The Irish government said one Irish hostage was freed.
Hollande has received public backing from Western and
African allies who fear that al Qaeda, flush with men and arms
from the defeated forces of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, is building
a desert haven in Mali, a poor country helpless to combat
fighters who seized its northern oasis towns last year.
However, there is also some concern in Washington and other
capitals that the French action in Mali could provoke a backlash
worse than the initial threat by militants in the remote Sahara.
The militants, communicating through established contacts
with media in neighbouring Mauritania, said on Wednesday they
had dozens of men armed with mortars and anti-aircraft missiles
in the compound and had rigged it with explosives.
They condemned Algeria's secularist government for letting
French warplanes fly over its territory to Mali and shutting its
border to Malian refugees.
The attack in Algeria did not stop France from pressing on
with its campaign in Mali. It said on Thursday it now had 1,400
troops on the ground there, and combat was under way against the
rebels that it first began targeting from the air last week.
The French action last week came as a surprise but received
widespread public international support. Neighbouring African
countries planning to provide ground troops for a U.N. force by
September have said they will move faster to deploy them.
Nigeria, the strongest regional power, sent 162 soldiers on
Thursday, the first of an anticipated 906.
A day after launching the campaign in Mali, Hollande also
ordered a commando raid in Somalia on Saturday, which failed to
free a French hostage held by al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab
militants since 2009. Al Shabaab said on Thursday it had
executed the hostage, Denis Allex. France said it believed he
had died in the raid.