Sahara Islamists take hostages, spreading Mali war

Wed Jan 16, 2013 6:47pm EST
 

By Lamine Chikhi and Bate Felix

ALGIERS/BAMAKO (Reuters) - Islamist fighters seized dozens of Western and Algerian hostages in a dawn raid on a natural gas facility deep in the Sahara on Wednesday and demanded France halt a new offensive against rebels in neighboring Mali.

Three people, among them one British and one French, were reported killed, but details were sketchy and numbers of those held at Tigantourine ranged from 41 foreigners - including perhaps seven Americans as well as Japanese and Europeans - to over 100 local staff, held separately and less closely watched.

What is clear is that with a dramatic counterpunch to this week's French build-up in Mali, the region's loosely allied, al Qaeda-inspired radicals have set Paris a daunting dilemma and spread fallout from Mali's hitherto obscure civil war far beyond northwest Africa, challenging Washington as well as Europeans and shutting down a major gas field that pumps energy to Europe.

The attack, which Algeria said was led by a veteran, Afghan-trained holy warrior-cum-smuggler dubbed "The Uncatchable" by French intelligence, came just as French ground troops in Mali launched their first assault after six days of air strikes.

The United States, which like European powers endorsed France's decision to intervene last week against Islamists who have seized vast tracts of northern Mali, confirmed Americans were among the hostages and said it would work to "secure" them.

Western and African governments have been alarmed by a flow of weapons and fighters across the unmarked Sahara borders following the end of Libya's civil war in 2011 and fear that Mali, where Islamists drive the national army from the north nine months ago, could become an Afghan-style al Qaeda haven.

The militants, who said they had dozens of fighters in the gas field, issued no explicit threat but made clear to media in neighboring Mauritania the hostages' lives were at risk.

"We hold the Algerian government and the French government and the countries of the hostages fully responsible if our demands are not met and it is up to them to stop the brutal aggression against our people in Mali," read one statement from the group, which called itself the "Battalion of Blood".   Continued...

 
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, identified by the Algerian interior ministry as the leader of a militant Islamic group, is pictured in a screen capture from an undated video distributed by the Belmokhtar Brigade obtained by Reuters January 16, 2013. REUTERS/Belmokhtar Brigade/Handout