Algeria on Edge
|Diego Dighero||January 18th 2013|
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she is "deeply concerned" about the ongoing hostage crisis in Algeria, and called on the Algerian government to do everything in its power to save lives. Clinton spoke during a joint appearance with the new Japanese foreign minister on January 18 in Washington as new reports from Algerian state media said at least 12 Algerians and foreigners had died after an assault by the Algerian army. She also said it is absolutely essential for the U.S. to" broaden and deepen" counter-terrorism efforts with Algeria and all countries of the region.
One American, Frederick Buttaccio of Texas, is dead and dozens of foreign hostages were unaccounted for on January 18 after an Algerian military raid in the Sahara desert to retake the Ain Amenas gas compound that was stormed this week by Islamist militants.
The Algerian government said 573 Algerians and nearly 100 of approximately 132 foreign hostages have escaped or had been freed. Much about the military operation, however, remained unclear, leaving officials in other countries frustrated by contradictory versions of what happened at the remote gas field near the Algerian-Libyan border. A Norwegian spokesman expressed frustration that his government had not been warned in advance of the raid.
Later on January 18, reports emerged that the terrorists offered to trade two Americans for two convicted terrorists now imprisoned in the United States, including the 'Blind Sheik' Omar Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian Muslim cleric convicted in 1995 of plotting to bomb landmarks in New York City. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, "The United States does not negotiate with terrorists." She also confirmed that some Americans were still being held hostage.
The rescue effort is ongoing as Algerian special forces are negotiating for the lives of the remaining group of hostages.It was not clear whether the hostages reported to be freed were rescued by the Algerian army or released by their captors, and there has been no Western confirmation of the report. The hostages at the site are believed to include nationals from the U.S., Britain, Japan, Norway, Romania, the Philippines, France, Malaysia and Austria.
Earlier on January 18, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland described the situation as fluid and complicated. "They [the Algerians] are dealing with people who have no respect for human life and it is obviously in our interest to see them successfully bring this situation to a conclusion," she said. Officials in the U.S., Britain and other countries have said they are seeking information about developments at the plant - while expressing regret Algeria did not inform them in advance about the military operation.
British Prime Minister David Cameron told lawmakers that same day that he got an update from Algeria's prime minister. "He said that the terrorists had tried to flee, that they judged there to be an immediate threat to the lives of the hostages and had felt obliged to respond," he said. "When I spoke to the Algerian prime minister later last night he told me that this first operation was complete but this is a large and complex site and they are still pursuing terrorists and possibly some of the hostages in other areas of the site," Cameron said.
The White House said on January 18 that President Obama is getting regular updates from security officials on the situation in Algeria. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is in London and met with Prime Minister Cameron on the same day. Officials said they discussed Algeria, Mali, and other issues. During a speech at London's King's College, Panetta said terrorists who attack Americans "will have no refuge - not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere."
Speaking during a trip to Perth, Australia, British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned the Algerian kidnapping is part of a much more worrisome problem. "This terrible incident of terrorism has highlighted again the threat in North Africa and the Sahel, from international terrorism, and working with our international partners we will maintain our resolve to see that threat countered and defeated and al-Qaida denied a foothold on Europe's southern border," said Hague.
In France, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls also raised concerns about militant groups and links to Europe. "For years, there have been French jihadis who have gone to fight a war in Afghanistan, in Syria, and a very small handful in the Sahel. They are obviously being watched by our intelligence agencies," said Valls.
The militants, who said they attacked the facility in retaliation for French military operations in Mali, have threatened more attacks. A spokesman for the group told the Mauritanian news agency ANI that Algerian forces should stay away from foreign companies, vowing to strike "where it is least expected." The gas complex, located on a base in a remote area of the desert, is jointly run by Algerian, British, Japanese, and Norwegian firms.
- from VOA and agency reports.