Early on Wednesday, Islamic militants seized a natural gas field partly operated by BP in southern Algeria, taking more than two dozen workers hostage including seven Americans, according to the U.S. State Department. The attack has resulted in at least two deaths, including one British national, and six wounded.
The attackers have called this retaliation for Algeria’s decision to allow the French-led military intervention in neighboring country Mali, where French forces have been conducting airstrikes in support of the Malian government in its fight against Islamic insurgents.
The New York Times reports that the exact number of individuals being held is not certain, though an Algerian government official has stated that “the situation is confused for the moment. We don’t have precise figures for now. Maybe 30.”
He also said that the security services have now “encircled the base” ensuring that “no one can leave,” and that the militants are believed to have come from Mali.
According to CBS News, BP has stated in a statement that the site was “attacked and occupied by a group of unidentified armed people.” Some of BPs personnel are also believed to be held by the attackers.
This attack, carried out by Al-Qaeda affiliates in the Islamic Maghreb, the Northwest region of Africa, was the first significant retaliation by the Islamists in response to the French intervention, and it raises the possibility of bringing in a number of foreign countries into the conflict as citizens of the U.S., Britain, France, Norway, and Japan are believed to be held hostage.
The attack has also raised fears that the French-led invasion could result in further Islamist retribution attacks on Western targets in Africa.
A man claiming to be the spokesman for the militant group has claimed that they allowed all Algerian workers to escape the gas facility, and were only holding foreigners captive. He has also set forth a list of demands and has warned that any rescue attempts carried out by troops would only result in the deaths of the hostages.
''Storming the gas complex would be easy for the Algerian military, but the outcome of such an operation would be disastrous," he said, according to BBC. "We are holding the Algerian and French governments, and the hostages' countries, entirely responsible for their slowness in satisfying our demands, foremost of which is an immediate halt to the aggression against our brothers in Mali," the spokesman added.
Meanwhile, in Mali, French trips have begun moving north, toward the site of the attack in the Algerian city of Diabaly, in what is likely to be their first major ground operation. According to the Wasthington Post, however, French Special Forces have already been aiding the Malian soldiers, fighting alongside them.
The issue that could potentially be raised in the case of a full-on attack by French armed-forces would be that of the risk of casualties that would undoubtedly result in a loss of support from the French leaders and public. The longer that the presence of the French forces is in the region remains, the more vulnerable they are.
It would be most pragmatic for the French forces to carry out any and all operations before, as former President Estaing has advised Hollande according to the Washington Post, limiting French assistance solely to “logistical support to African forces.”