By Robert Weller /Allvoices
Somalilandsun – An early claim by the Algerian army that it had ended the hostage situation at a gas plant near the Libya border appeared premature. After reports that some foreign hostages and local workers escaped from the gas production site, the al-Qaida backed Islamist rebels said they had killed dozens of them.
At midnight Algiers’ time Le Monde and Le Point said the battle isn’t over, and the Islamists still controlled part of the site. Le Monde, in its French edition, said 100 hostages were still held in the site’s factory.
Algerie1 said, “Some terrorists whose number has not been determined are still entrenched in the middle of this huge site of Tiguentourine.”
If the fighting was continuing it would explain why firm figures have not been released by Algerian authorities.
Reuters reported 30 hostages dead, at least six of them foreign workers. Reuters, in all the confusing reports from the Algerian government, initially said seven hostages were killed. An undetermined number of terrorists, as many as 15, were killed.
The Guardian said it was feared the number of dead would rise dramatically when the accounting for employees is complete.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told ABC: “I don’t think there’s any question that — based on what we do know that this was — a terrorist act and — that the terrorists — have affiliation with Al Qaeda.”
Former US Army Gen. Stanley Allen McChrystal defended the French incursion in Mali. He said al-Qaida had been operating in the area for years, and had become a threat to the region. He said France had little economic interest in Mali, but much more in surrounding nations. He used marketing terms in describing al-Qaida. McCrystal said it had become a franchise operation and was intent on “branding” the Maghreb. He said it was not the same people involved, but a spreading of an idea.
The Algerian minister told Al Jazeera there had been “several deaths and injuries” among the hostages and that many fighters had also been killed. “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,” Said said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron warned the public to be prepared for bad news. Britain, Norway and France had urged restraint by the Algerian army.
Le Monde quoted a European hostage as saying the attackers were wearing military uniforms to deceive the employees.
Al Jazeera earlier reported thirty-five hostages and 15 kidnappers have been killed in southern Algeria, according to the group holding the hostages. There was no independent confirmation of the rebels’ claim, but the BBC said the Algerian army had launched a rescue attempt.
The area was 500 miles northeast of the Mali border, and 60 miles from Libya, suggesting the insurgents were not Mali-based.
Seven Americans were among the estimated 41 hostages, and the US had hinted it will intervene.
The Algerian army surrounded the facility, purportedly seized in protest of a French attack on Islamist rebels in neighboring Mali. The BBC said there was firing heard overnight.
A spokesman for a group calling itself the Masked Brigade, Katibat Moulathamine, said it seized the hostages to protest the Mali attacks and the Algerian decision to let French warplanes fly over its territory, Al Jazeera said. The BBC said it was just as likely that this was an attempt win a ransom by Moktar Belmoktar, an Algerian who split off from Al-Qaida, to raise money. They said he made $250 million in the past from kidnappings.
Algeria said the attackers came from nearby Libya, where their leader was probably hiding.
Belmokhtar lost an eye fighting in Afghanistan and is called “The One Eyed” in the Algerian press. He is also called the “Marlboro Man” for hijacking cigarette trucks.
Algeria has vowed not to negotiate with the gunmen at the site 25 miles southwest of Amena and 800 miles south of the capital of Algiers, although the two sides have communicated.
The Tigantourine facility is jointly operated by Algeria’s Sonatrach BP and Norway’s Statoil. It sits next to the Libya border, a long way across desert terrain from Mali.
Workers known to be at the facility are British, French, Japanese, Norwegian, Algerian, American and Irish.
While French Foreign Legionaires were fighting hand-to-hand against al-Qaida led Islamists in the north and west of Mali the Algerian terrorists took up to 41 foreigners prisoner in Algeria.
Western governments feared an Islamist takeover would provide a safe haven for al-Qaida, just as Afghanistan had been before 9/11. The difference is that Mali is mostly flat semi-desert and the Sahara. It offers little in the way of concealment Afghanistan’s mountains did.
Robert Weller is based in Denver, Colorado, United States of America, and is an Anchor for Allvoices.