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
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
education
News
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
news
Sport
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
News
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
science
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
News
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
i100
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
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

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London