Conflicting reports on number of hostages killed

Algerian forces have mounted an operation to free dozens of hostages held captive by Islamist insurgents in a gas installation in remote eastern Algeria. At the time of print, Algerian state media reported that the army had taken control of the complex but offered no information on potential casualties. While al-Jazeera reported that 35 hostages and 15 insurgents had been killed in the operation, Reuters reported that six hostages had been killed thus far and 25 had escaped.

According to the BBC, armed insurgents attacked the In Amenas gas installation, a joint venture among Norway’s Statoil, Britain’s BP and Algerian state-owned Sonatrach, in the early hours of Wednesday. There are no clear estimates of the number of people held hostage, but reports suggest 300 Algerians and 41 foreign nationals including French, American and Japanese, were captured.

A group called Al Mulathameen (The Brigade of the Masked Ones), a group affiliated to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), is believed to have held the workers captive. According to Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kabila, the raid was masterminded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran fighter involved in insurgencies in Afghanistan and Algeria and dubbed Mr. Marlboro for his control of the cigarette smuggling operations in the Sahara.

The hostage crisis is an early indication that the French intervention in neighbouring Mali could have profound regional consequences for north and western Africa. The hostage takers had, among other demands, asked for a French withdrawal from central Mali.

Since early 2012, the Malian government has lost nearly two-thirds of its territory to a multi-dimensional insurgency in the north. Last week, France rushed troops, helicopters, and jets to Mali after Islamist rebels came within 50 km of the critical military base of Sevare in central Mali. Since then, the rebels have opened a new front at Diabaly, about 400 km from Bamako, the Malian capital.

While Algeria has declined to provide troops to an African mission for Mali, it has opened its airspace to French military aircraft. Meanwhile, neighbouring countries from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) have pledged a ground force of about 3000 troops, led by a Nigerian general.

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