Dozens of armed jihadists claiming to come from Mali killed two foreigners, including a British national, and kidnapped at least 20 more in a raid at an oil field in Algeria on Wednesday.Barbara Starr of CNN reports that a U.S. Africa Command response force is waiting on standby, adding that the team has been diverted from Mali and is gathering intel on the facility.
An official told her the Commanders In-extremis Force “is on a very short string” and “other nations are similarly assessing their response posture.”
Earlier it was reported that there were 41 kidnapped foreigners — including seven Americans and citizens of UK, France, Ireland, Japan and Norway — but the total may be closer to 20, and the number of Americans may be as few as three.
The Algerian Press Service, citing a source from the provincial administration of Illizi, reported that “a little more than 20 foreign nationals are held hostage.” BBC reports that “some 20 people were being held” and The Washington Post
Al-Arabiya and Le Monde then reported that a French catering company announced 150 of its Algerian employees are being held at the plant, which is jointly operated by British oil giant BP, Norway’s Statoil and Algeria’s Sonatrach.
Alex Spillius of The Telegraph describes the raid as “the most spectacular act the region has seen in two decades of terrorism.”
U.S. officials told CNN that they believe the attack originated in Libya, the border of which lies 60 miles from the Ain Menas oil field.
The militants, reportedly members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are demanding a halt of French attacks in northern Mali and the release of 100 militants being held in Algeria in exchange for the safety of kidnapped hostages. A U.S. official told CNN that the “level of planning suggests that this was in train before the French overflights ever took place.”
An Algerian security official told The Associated Press that Algerian forces have surrounded the kidnappers, and Algeria’s interior minister said authorities “will not respond to any of the terrorists’ demands and refuse all negotiation.”
Here’s more on the U.S. response from CNN:
The [Commanders In-extremis Force] unit is prepared to move within four hours of being ordered to do so, a U.S. defence official told CNN … A second U.S. official said that any operation would take time to unfold. “This is not the type of mission that you plan and execute overnight, it’s just not … [We] don’t know specifically how many militants or hostages there are. But with so little information, if you’re talking dozens of militants and up to 40 hostages, I don’t see how you go in without killing half the hostages.”
Al-Arabiya noted that the raiders are reportedly commanded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran Saharan jihadist and smuggling kingpin.
“He’s one of the best known warlords of the Sahara,” said Stephen Ellis, an expert on organised crime and professor at the African Studies Centre in the Netherlands, told Al-Arabiya.
Jihadists in the area built an empire off ransom payments and drug trafficking.
The attack is the first of its kind on an oil field in Algeria, according to Algerian media.
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