Desert storm: Islamists take Mali fight to Algeria

 

Islamist militants were holding  up to 41 Western gas engineers at a remote BP site in Algeria today, deepening fears that the conflict in Mali could unleash an anti-Western war across the deserts of northern Africa.

One Briton and a Frenchman were reported to have been killed in the attack near the Libyan border and an unknown number of workers, including several Britons and an Irishman, were apparently taken hostage. Sixty heavily armed raiders attacked the gas field in a convoy of pick-up trucks.

The head of a French company providing catering services at the site said tonight:  “All the Western workers were taken away and tied up … They are being kept apart and not allowed to move.” Reports last night suggested that the group had offered to free the captives if Algeria released 100 Islamists in its jails and drove them to the border with Mali. Algeria, which has a history of taking a hard line in situations such as this, ruled out negotiations.

The Interior Minister, Daho Ould Kablia, was quoted as saying: “The Algerian authorities will not  respond to the demands of the terrorists and will not negotiate.”

Algerian officials said that the raiders, surrounded by its army, were threatening to blow up the site and their captives if their demands were not met. The group of 41 hostages, including 13 Norwegians, seven Americans, several Japanese and British nationals, were seized early yesterday. More than 300 Algerian workers were also captured but later released unharmed.

A spokesman for BP said: “The site was attacked and occupied by a group of unidentified armed people at about 5am UK time. Contact with the site is extremely difficult but we understand that armed individuals are still occupying the site.”

Reports suggested that the raiders spoke Arabic with “strong Libyan  accents”. A group called the Katibat Moulathamine, or “Masked Brigade”, told Mauritanian radio the attack was a “punishment” for Algeria’s decision to permit French warplanes to use its airspace to attack Malian rebels.

The Algerian government said the raiders had travelled 600 miles through the Sahara desert from Mali, where French troops were engaged today in the first ground fighting of their six-day-old intervention against Islamist insurgents. 

Special forces were reported to be fighting house-to-house in the small town of Diabaly, north of the capital Bamako, which was captured on Monday.

The French Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said the town was held by 1,300 fighters from the multinational Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) faction. He said they were “the toughest, the most fanatical, the best organised, the most determined and best armed” of the three, loosely allied Islamist groups which overran Mali’s vast, northern desert region last year.

For a sixth day, French warplanes and helicopters pounded the rebels, who attempted last week to break through the relatively narrow “waist” of Mali into the fertile and populous south, where 90 per cent of the population of 14.5 million lives.

Today, a column of 30 French armoured trucks and light tanks moved into holding positions protecting Niger river crossings south of Diabaly. This freed special forces units to move forward to test Islamist resistance in the town itself.

French strategy is to hold the line until a promised 3,500-strong West African force assembles. President François Hollande said he hoped his ground troops could give way to the African contingent “within days or weeks”. The first African soldiers are expected to reach Mali tomorrow but it may be months before they are ready to fight.

Meanwhile, the islamist raid in south-eastern Algeria confirms widespread fears that the Malian conflict could spread across the immense, porous national frontiers of the Sahara and Sahel region stretching from Mauritania to Libya.

Algerian press reports, quoting interior ministry sources, said the raiders initially tried to hijack a bus taking Western workers to the airport. They were fought off after they killed two people, including a Briton, it was claimed.

The Islamist ringleader: Belmokhtar 'the uncatchable'

The attack on BP's Algeria gas field is believed to be the work of one of the most elusive and blood-stained Islamists in North Africa.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, known as "the uncatchable", was until last year a commander of al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb, the most feared of the three Islamist groups that threaten to overrun Mali. In his first-ever public appearance last month, he posted online a video in which he said he had split from Aqim and started his own movement in neighbouring Niger called "Signatories in Blood".

Belmokhtar is also known as "Bellaouar", "Khaled Abou Abass" and "the One-Eyed Man". Born in Ghardaïa, Algeria, about 50 years ago, he volunteered to fight in Afghanistan in 1991.

Since his return to North Africa in 1993, he has been implicated in a dozen or more attacks on Westerners, including the murder of four Frenchmen in Mauritania in December 2007 and the murder of two Swiss, a Briton and a German woman in January 2009.

Last July, he was said to have been killed fighting a rival Malian group which wants to create an independent, secular Tuareg state in the Sahara. The claim proved exaggerated and the other rebels have since been driven out of Mali.To finance his activities, especially arms purchases, Belmokhtar is believed to have ransomed some of his previous Western hostages for millions of pounds.

The Algerian interior ministry said yesterday that he had attacked the BP gas field with 20 militants who were "not from any neighbouring country".

How they managed to reach southern Algeria undetected from Belmokhtar's new base in Niger – 1,000km away – is a mystery.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Offshore Wind Grid Connection Specialist

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

SEN Science Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum + SEN allowance: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are ...

Media Studies Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are recruiting for a M...

History Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are looking fo...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices