CAIRO -- Algerian forces launched a brazen air attack on suspected Islamist militants holding scores of foreign employees of a natural gas complex Thursday, killing kidnappers and hostages alike in what appeared to be a forceful message from Algeria that it would not tolerate jihadist movements operating within its borders.
It was unclear how many hostages and kidnappers died in the assault on the Ain Amenas natural gas complex, a joint venture of the British oil giant BP and Algeria’s state oil company. According to Mauritania’s ANI news agency, 34 hostages and 15 Islamists died. Another four hostages were freed, ANI said, although it did not say how. The Reuters news agency reported that 25 hostages escaped and six were killed.
The family of one, Stephen McFaul of Belfast, Northern Ireland, told the BBC that he had called home to report he was free.
The Algerians acknowledged that some hostages had been killed but did not say how many or give their nationalities. An undetermined number of Americans were among the hostages. Reuters, citing unnamed sources, later reported that the dead militants included three Egyptians, two Algerians, two Tunisians, two Libyans, one Frenchman and a Malian.
"Unfortunately we deplore some deaths and some people wounded. We don’t yet have the numbers," said Algerian Communications Minister Mohand Said Oubelaid.
The operation lasted into the night, with the Algerian military flying helicopters overhead and its troops surrounding the gas line site.
That the Algerians launched an air and ground offensive to rescue hostages, all without notifying nations whose citizens were among those kidnapped, suggested that the Algerians saw an opportunity to aggressively fend off jihadists moving within its borders.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was not notified before the offensive and called the Algerian offensive an “extremely difficult situation.”
"The Algerian prime minister explained that the situation was very fast-moving and that in the government’s judgment they needed to act immediately," said Cameron spokesman Jean-Christophe Gray, adding, "The Algerians are aware that we would have preferred to have been consulted in advance.”
The U.S. State Department said it would not say if the Algerians told it about the impending attack, but one U.S. military official told McClatchy that the United States was given no advance notice. Three of the hostages are Japanese, and officials in Tokyo said Algeria did not notify them beforehand.
Indeed, many countries whose nationals are among the hostages, including the United States, said they were unclear about what had happened in Algeria.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration was in contact with the Algerians but did not offer any specifics, calling it an “ongoing situation” and saying that the U.S. is “seeking clarity.”
Among the hostages were 13 Norwegians. In Oslo, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday night called the situation unclear.
Japan called on Algeria to cease its offensive, saying it put the hostages’ lives at risk.
Regardless, French President Francois Hollande said that Thursday’s events only reaffirmed his nation’s weeklong military campaign to rid Algeria’s southern neighbor, Mali, of an increasingly powerful jihadist movement.
“What’s happening in Algeria provides further evidence that my decision to intervene in Mali was justified," Hollande said.
Algeria has identified the kidnappers as members of an al Qaida-affiliated group led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a longtime militant who is described as charismatic, ruthless and stubborn. In a statement Wednesday, hours after the kidnappers snatched the gas line workers, Belmokhtar’s group said the attack was in retaliation for the French-led offensive in Mali.
Algeria, perhaps more than other North African nations, is particularly sensitive to the rise of extremist groups. The country endured a brutal decade-long war between opposition Islamist forces and the government that began in 1992 when the Algerian military staged a coup to stop Islamists from winning elections. Villagers were beheaded, communities decimated and Westerners killed in a war where the perpetrators of the brutality were often not identified. The government charged that the Islamists were led by foreign elements, while the Islamists blamed the government for the violence.
The fear of Islamist militancy persists in Algeria, where residents still argue over who was responsible for the war’s brutality, which in a country of roughly 27 million at the time killed 200,000 and displaced 100,000 more.