Jan. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Algeria security forces freed some foreigners as they battled an al-Qaeda-linked group holding hostages in the southern desert, causing an undetermined number of casualties, the state-run Algerian Press Service reported.
As many as half of the hostages have been freed, according to the report, which didn’t provide a casualty toll. The attackers said yesterday they were holding 41 foreigners abducted from a natural gas complex operated by BP Plc, Statoil ASA of Norway and Algeria’s Sonatrach, while Algerian Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia said they numbered “a little more than 20.” American, Norwegian, British and Malaysian workers were among the hostages. A British citizen died when the group attacked the complex, APS said.
“The Algerian authorities have confirmed that there is an ongoing operation,” the U.K. Foreign Office said in a statement.
An Irish man who was held hostage is free and has made contact with his family, Ireland’s Department for Foreign Affairs said in a statement. As many as 600 Algerians were also freed, according to APS.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron spoke with Norwegian and Japanese lawmakers, and the companies involved at the complex, and decided it was right for the Algerians to lead efforts to end the crisis and has received no request for help, Cameron’s spokesman Jean-Christophe Gray told reporters today.
Mauritania’s private ANI news agency earlier reported that 35 hostages and 15 abductors were killed in an aerial raid, citing an unidentified spokesman for the group.
The militant group, calling itself the “Signatories by Blood,” demanded that France end its military attacks in Mali, according to ANI.
French ground troops advanced in Mali yesterday to engage Islamist fighters and ethnic Touareg separatists that have taken control of the northern half of the nation and were moving toward the capital, Bamako. France has committed 1,700 troops to the mission, including 800 deployed in the country.
The group in Algeria said it would kill the hostages if the nation’s army tried to liberate them by force, ANI today cited an unidentified spokesman as saying.
The attackers were operating under the orders of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who previously led al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, according to Algerian Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia. AQIM is among the groups targeted by the French armed forces in Mali and is holding four Frenchmen kidnapped in 2010 from a mine operated by nuclear company Areva SA in neighboring Niger.
“This is exactly what Algeria was fearing,” James D. Le Sueur, a history professor specializing in Algeria at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, said in a phone interview. “They were afraid that any incursion in Mali would cause a resurgence of al-Qaeda.”
--With assistance from Inal Ersan in Dubai, Brian Swint and Thomas Penny in London, Salah Slimani in Algiers , Oudaa Marouf in Nouakchott and Josiane Kremer in Oslo. Editors: Karl Maier, Ben Holland