Algeria Hostage Crisis Death Toll Rises
A raid by the Algerian army on Saturday ended the four-day hostage crisis wherein a total of at least eighty people are said to have died. On Sunday, an Algerian security source reported that 48 foreigners were among those killed. The death toll is expected to rise as many foreign workers remain unaccounted for. The Mulathameen Brigade, an Al-Qaeda affiliated militia group operating in Algeria, captured foreign workers at the In Amenas gas plant in southeastern Algeria last Wednesday.
The siege ended on Saturday after Algerian forces stormed the site. Algerian state media reported that all the militants had been killed or captured and that the remaining hostages had been freed. The military operation was launched after militants were said to be killing foreign hostages. Among those international workers confirmed dead are nine Japanese, six Filipinos, three Britons, and two Romanians. Algerian state news agency APS claimed that 107 of the 132 foreign workers held hostage had been freed in Saturday’s raid.
Algerian troops surrounded the gas facility soon after militants first captured the site. The Algerian army launched a botched rescue mission on Thursday, 17 January. The Algerian government said it undertook the operation to prevent militants escaping the site with their captives. Reports said some hostages escaped but several others were killed as the militants retained control of the facility. The Algerian government acted alone throughout the crisis despite calls from foreign leaders to inform of any action taken.
Speaking on Sunday, British Prime Minister David Cameron warned of the international terror threat posed by the Algerian militants. “This is a global threat and it will require a global response,” said Cameron, reflecting the increasing Western concern over Islamist influence in both Algeria and Mali.
The Mulathameen Brigade is believed to be a new off-shoot of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), headed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Belmokhtar is a well-known Islamic extremist, wanted in Algeria on terrorism charges. Mauritanian news outlet Sahara Media said Belmokhtar claimed responsibility for the hostage-taking in a video message. AQIM is one of the main Islamist groups that seized control of northern Mali in March 2012, and is currently the target of French airstrikes in the region.
The hostage crisis in Algeria came in quick succession to France’s military intervention in neighbouring Mali only two days earlier. Analysts believe the links between the hostage-taking and events in Mali remain tentative as the attack on the gas facility would have required advanced planning. The Mulathameen Brigade cited French intervention in Mali as the reason for the attack on In Amenas and the group vowed not to release any of the hostages until France ended military operations against Islamists in northern Mali. Mali and Algeria are politically tied up as AQIM actively seeks to overthrow the Algerian government. “Algeria is integral to the Mali crisis . . . there can never be a solution to the Mali crisis without Algeria being involved,” Alex Vines of Chatham House told Asharq Al-Awsat.