David Cameron holds crisis Cobra meeting after claims that militant group is holding 41 hostages
A Briton and a French national have been killed in an attack by militants on a gas complex in the Algerian desert, according to the country’s state news agency. Seven others are reported to have been wounded and an undetermined number of foreigners – possibly as many as 41 – are being held hostage.
A group called the Katibat Moulathamine, or the Masked Brigade, called a Mauritanian news outlet to say one of its subsidiaries had carried out the operation on the Ain Amenas gas field, taking 41 hostages from nine or 10 different nationalities.
The group’s claim could not be independently substantiated.
David Cameron was chairing a meeting of the government’s crisis committee Cobra on Wednesday afternoon. The Ain Amenas natural gas complex is operated as a joint venture by British Petroleum, Norway’s Statoil and the Algerian state company, Sonatrach.
It is understood that a 36-year-old married man from Northern Ireland was among British, Irish, Japanese, Norwegian and French nationals taken captive during a dawn raid by a group claiming al-Qaida links. A diplomatic source said an American had also been kidnapped.
BP said armed people are still occupying facilities at the gas field in Algeria.
“The site was attacked and occupied by a group of unidentified armed people at about 0500 UK time. Contact with the site is extremely difficult, but we understand that armed individuals are still occupying the In Amenas operations site,” it said.
The Algerian interior ministry said heavily armed gunman in three vehicles had attacked the complex early on Wednesday morning. Local officials reported earlier that at least nine foreigners had been kidnapped and two people had been killed, inluding a French national.
Five Japanese nationals working for the Japanese engineering firm JCG Corp were kidnapped as well as a French national, they said.
A Foreign Office spokesperson confirmed that British nationals were caught up in a “terrorist incident” near the town of Ain Amenas at an oil installation near the Algerian border with Libya. “The British embassy in Algiers is liaising with the local authorities.”
The raid came after Islamists vowed to retaliate for France’s military intervention in neighbouring Mali, where forces have been in action since last week against militants linked to al-Qaida.
The attack has raised fears that the French action may prompt further Islamist revenge attacks on western targets in Africa, where al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb operates across borders in the Sahara desert, and in Europe.
Algeria’s official APS news agency said that one security guard had been killed and seven people were injured, including two foreigners.
Also kidnapped was a Norwegian gas worker, the newspaper Bergens Tidende said, quoting the man’s wife.
“I received a phone call from my husband this morning and he said he was kidnapped,” the woman said. The Norwegian foreign ministry could not confirm the report.
Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Eamon Gilmore, has called for the Irish captive’s immediate release.
“The government stands ready to use all the resources available to us to ensure that our citizen is released as soon as possible,” he said. “I would ask that the family be allowed privacy at this difficult time.”
The Republic’s department of foreign affairs said it was providing consular assistance to the family and was in close contact with its international partners and a wide range of other contacts in order to establish the facts.
The claim that 41 hostages were being held was made in a call to the Nouakchott Information Agency, which often carries announcements from extremist groups.
The caller did not give any further details, except to say that the kidnapping was carried out by “Those Who Signed in Blood,” a group created to attack the countries participating in the ongoing offensive against Islamist groups in Mali.
Typically there would be fewer than 20 foreign members of staff on the Ain Amenas site on a typical day, along with hundreds of Algerian employees.