Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Algerian Strike Hits Militants, Hostages; at Least 6 Were Killed in Helicopter Attack on Gas Plant; Fate of Others Unclear

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Algerian Strike Hits Militants, Hostages; at Least 6 Were Killed in Helicopter Attack on Gas Plant; Fate of Others Unclear

Article excerpt

ALGIERS, Algeria Algerian helicopters and special forces stormed a gas plant in the stony plains of the Sahara on Thursday to wipe out Islamist militants and free hostages from at least 10 countries. Bloody chaos ensued, leaving the fate of the fighters and many of the captives uncertain.

Dueling claims from the military and the militants muddied the worlds understanding of an event that angered Western leaders, raised world oil prices and complicated the international military operation in neighboring Mali.

At least six people, and perhaps many more, were killed Britons, Filipinos and Algerians. Terrorized hostages from Ireland and Norway trickled out of the Ain Amenas plant, families urging them never to return.

Dozens more remained unaccounted for: Americans, Britons, French, Norwegians, Romanians, Malaysians, Japanese, Algerians and the fighters themselves.

The U.S. government sent a surveillance drone to the BP-operated site, near the border with Libya and 800 miles from the Algerian capital, but it could do little more than watch Thursdays intervention. Algerias army-dominated government, hardened by decades of fighting Islamist militants, shrugged aside foreign offers of help and drove ahead alone.

With the hostage drama entering its second day Thursday, Algerian security forces moved in, first with helicopter fire and then special forces, according to diplomats, a website close to the militants, and an Algerian security official. The government said it was forced to intervene because the militants were being stubborn and wanted to flee with the hostages.

The militants led by a Mali-based al-Qaida offshoot known as the Masked Brigade suffered losses in Thursdays military assault but succeeded in garnering a global audience.

Even violence-scarred Algerians were stunned by the brazen hostage-taking Wednesday, the biggest in northern Africa in years and the first to include Americans as targets. Mass fighting in the 1990s had largely spared the lucrative oil and gas industry that gives Algeria its economic independence and regional weight.

The hostage-taking raised questions about security for sites run by multinational companies that are dotted across Africas largest country. It also raised the prospect of similar attacks on other countries allied against the extremist warlords and drug traffickers who rule a vast patch of desert across several countries in northwestern Africa. Even the heavy-handed Algerian response may not deter groups looking for attention.

Casualty figures in the Algerian standoff varied widely. The remote location is extremely hard to reach and was surrounded by Algerian security forces who, like the militants, are inclined to advertise their successes and minimize their failures.

An important number of hostages were freed and an important number of terrorists were eliminated, and we regret the few dead and wounded, Algerias communications minister, Mohand Said Oubelaid, told national media, adding that the terrorists are multinational, coming from several different countries with the goal of destabilizing Algeria, embroiling it in the Mali conflict and damaging its natural gas infrastructure. …

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