January 18, 2013

Rescue Raid Turns Deadly

Algeria Operation to Free Hostages Stuns U.S., U.K.


Algeria's military launched a raid Thursday to free about 40 foreigners held by militants at a remote natural-gas complex--leaving some hostages dead, surprising and angering several governments and putting leaders across the world at a loss to determine the fate of their citizens.

The U.S., U.K. and Japan, whose nationals were among those held, said they had urged the Algerians not to resort to force to free the hostages, who were taken Wednesday by militants with suspected ties to al Qaeda's regional affiliate. The U.S. and U.K. received no warning that the raid was beginning, officials from the countries said.

"Before the raid began, we urged the Algerians to be cautious and strongly encouraged them to make the safety of the hostages their top priority," an Obama administration official told The Wall Street Journal.

Some foreign hostages were killed when forces raided the southeast Algerian natural-gas facility, called In Amenas, an Algerian government official confirmed. He didn't elaborate. Algerian officials have told their American and European counterparts that news reports of the number of hostages killed at the site were vastly exaggerated, saying the number was likely close to 11 or 12, according to U.S. and Western officials.

The Algerian official said only that at least four engineers had been freed. An Irish hostage is safe and has made contact with his family, the Irish government said.

By late Thursday, with details sparse and often contradictory, most governments with citizens at the site said they were unable to offer casualty numbers or account for their missing.

U.S. officials said they believe as many as eight Americans were among the hostages. But officials have so far been unable to independently corroborate how many were killed in the raid, White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said. "Reports of casualties are all over the map," he said.

Even if Americans aren't among the casualties, U.S. officials worried that the siege pointed to a new era of terrorist attacks on Western interests in loosely governed regions, particularly in energy-rich parts of Africa. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday that the hostage crisis illustrated the growing threat of Islamic extremism in northern Africa and the need for the U.S. to coordinate closely with African and European countries to combat it.

Playing out deep in Algeria's desert, the drama focuses international attention on al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, and related groups that have spread across a vast territory that encompasses parts of Mali, Algeria, Libya and Chad. Members of AQIM claimed responsibility for Wednesday's hostage-taking, which they branded retaliation after France sent combat troops last week to support neighboring Mali in its battle against al Qaeda-backed militants.

A Briton and an Algerian were killed in Wednesday's militant attack, Algeria's Interior Ministry has said.

Nationals of nearly a dozen countries were among the hostages, with Norway, Austria and France also among those confirming that their citizens were held. The In Amenas project, a partnership between U.K.-traded BP PLC, Norway's Statoil and Algerian energy company Sonatrach, employs some 600 people, according to BP.

Thursday's action by the Algerians was its second attempt in as many days to free the hostages.

U.S. officials said Algeria didn't give the White House warning before it launched the raid. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron also hadn't been informed of the operation beforehand, according to a spokesman for Mr. Cameron, who added that the prime minister lodged a personal protest Thursday with his Algerian counterpart.

As the raid unfolded, Mr. Cameron postponed a highly anticipated speech on Britain's role in the European Union. "It is a very dangerous, a very uncertain and a very fluid situation," Mr. Cameron, speaking with British Broadcasting Corp., said of the battle. "I think we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility of bad news ahead."

Algeria defended its decision to strike at the militants. The government took all necessary measures to reach a favorable ending, the country's press agency quoted Algerian communications minister Mohammed Said as saying. But the "radicalism of terrorists" had forced the army into launching an assault, he said, according to the Algerian agency, APS.

"An important number of" the suspected militants who seized hostages at the site on Wednesday were "neutralized" by ground forces during the assault, he said.

A spokesman for the militants said his group had been trying to transport some of the hostages to a more secure location but they were hit by Algerian airstrikes, according to the Mauritanian news agency ANI.

As of late Thursday, the battle between Algerian forces and militants continued, APS reported. Contradicting an earlier report that the raid had ended in full, the agency cited local officials as saying operations had been completed only at a living quarters at the facility, where most of the hostages had been held.

But a half mile away at the site--which satellite images and company photos reveal as a vast ochre-tinged plain, flanked by sand dunes and interrupted by the occasional tall metal crane and chimney--militants holding a smaller number of hostages were being surrounded by the army, APS reported.

U.S. officials couldn't confirm whether the operation was continuing. They said the U.S. military had deployed an unmanned drone over the gas field but that the images captured by the drone didn't provide a clear picture of the status of the hostages.

The attack also highlighted worries over a geopolitical risk that could threaten oil and gas operations. The attack shut down production of In Amenas, a major field which, at full capacity, could produce nine billion cubic meters of gas a year and 50,000 to 60,000 barrels a day of liquids.

Oil prices rose $1.25 to close at $95.49 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange on Thursday. Italian gas company Snam SpA said Thursday it has registered a drop of more than 13% in imports of gas from a pipeline coming from Algeria since the attack early Wednesday.

Risks to foreign energy companies operating in Algeria have improved since the 1990s civil war, but remain high, particularly along Algeria's coast. In contrast, the southern desert area where most of Algeria's oil- and gas-producing facilities are located are guarded by the Algerian army and security forces. This week's large-scale attacks marks a worrying break in peaceful operations there, said experts on the region.

Representatives from Statoil and BP said the companies had decided to bring employees home from other facilities in Algeria. Statoil's CEO said three flights will bring 40 employees home Thursday night.

BP officials declined to comment on the crisis late Thursday. Earlier in the day, it said it had been informed by the U.K. and Algerian governments of the raid but that it lacked reliable information and awaited updates from authorities.

Statoil Chief Executive Helge Lund said the company couldn't comment on the status of all 17 employees who were at In Amenas field and was worried about their well-being.

Into the night, families of Statoil hostages gathered at a hotel outside of Bergen on the Norwegian west coast, waiting for news. Mr. Lund had promised to come talk to them in the early afternoon Thursday. But the surprise attack delayed his plans.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, meanwhile, said four Norwegian hostages were safe outside the In Amenas facility, while nine remained unaccounted for.

Speaking during a press conference, Mr. Stoltenberg said he was informed by Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal at midday that military action was under way. Mr. Stoltenberg said he told Mr. Sellal that hostage safety was the top priority.

"The Algerian PM told me they had tried to find a solution during the night, but had not succeeded, so they had no other choice" than to attack, he said, adding that Algeria had had to make a tough decision.

The involvement of so many different foreign nationals had been expected to complicate efforts to quickly resolve the crisis, particularly given that Algeria has insisted it won't negotiate with the hostage-takers.

"Algeria has always condemned the payment of ransoms to terrorist groups, because that's a boost to the kidnapping industry," said Jean-Charles Brisard, a consultant specializing in terrorism.

Mr. Brisard said he had expected the Algerian army would act alone, despite so many other countries being involved. "The Algerian government is very much attached to its national sovereignty," he said. "The Algerians will settle it in their own way."

--Kjetil Malkenes Hovland, Jay Solomon, Selina Williams, James Herron and Jared Favole contributed to this article.

Write to Cassell Bryan-Low at and Adam Entous at