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BREAKING NEWS: Algeria hostage standoff continues

BY GABRIELE PARUSSINI

PARIS -- Foreign governments piled pressure on Algeria Thursday to quickly solve the hostage crisis at the In Amenas natural gas field, as the standoff between security forces and militants who have seized foreign nationals there extended for a second day.

BP, which operates the field along with Norway' s Statoil and Algerian energy company Sonatrach, said Thursday the situation at In Amenas "remains unresolved and fragile. Armed groups still occupy the site and hold a number of site personnel."

Militants with possible links to al Qaeda took about 40 foreign hostages on Wednesday, including several Americans, posing a new level of threat to nations trying to blunt the growing influence of Islamist extremists in Africa. The attack came days after France sent combat troops to fight alongside the Malian army, seeking to uproot an al Qaeda-linked insurgency in the West African nation.

France' s top target, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, claimed responsibility for the Algeria kidnappings, calling it retaliation. The claim couldn' t be verified, although AQIM has its origins in Algeria and operates across a swath of Africa.

The U.S., U.K., Japan, Norway, Austria and Ireland have all confirmed that some of their citizens are being held at the scene. The French government says it is unclear if French nationals are involved.

Algerian security forces failed in an attempt late Wednesday to storm the facility and reports on Thursday suggested there hasn' t been an additional attempt. Arabic broadcaster Al Jazeera said Algerian government snipers had opened fire on the site earlier Thursday, injuring two hostages there. The details couldn' t be verified.

An Algerian official said 20 foreign hostages, including Americans, escaped, the Associated Press reported Thursday.

Security experts say there are a number of options to free the hostages, including ransom negotiations by BP, U.S. government negotiations and U.S. military operations.

Al Jazeera reported the hostage-takers were ready for talks with foreign governments if there is a cease-fire by the Algerian authorities. The network said the condition was outlined in a telephone interview with one kidnapper who identified himself as Abou al-Baraa.

But the involvement of so many different foreign nationals could complicate efforts to quickly resolve the crisis, particularly given that Algeria has insisted it won' t negotiate with the hostage-takers.

"Algeria has always condemned the payment of ransoms to terrorist groups, because that' s a boost to the kidnapping industry," said Jean-Charles Brisard, an international consultant specializing in terrorism.

Mr. Brisard said he expects the Algerian army will act alone, despite so many other countries being involved. "The Algerian government is very much attached to its national sovereignty," he said. "The Algerians will settle it in their own way."

Japan' s foreign minister Fumio Kishida asked the Algerian government to make securing the lives of the hostages the top priority. The U.K. government also said it would consider any requests for military assistance from Algeria, but hasn' t received any.

Japan has dispatched a senior government official to Algeria to help deal with the situation on the ground. Several Japanese nationals, including employees of plant engineering company JGC Corp., are believed to be among the foreigners taken hostage.

Norway' s foreign minister said the government is communicating with Algeria and the other countries whose citizens have been taken hostage, with the security of the hostages in mind. "Algeria has the main responsibility, this is in Algeria and Algeria must be in the drivers' seat for what' s going to happen," said Espen Barth Eide.


Dow Jones Newswires

01/17/2013

 

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