As Algerian army helicopters clattered overhead deep in the Sahara desert, Islamist militants hunkered down for the night in a natural gas complex they had assaulted Wednesday morning, killing two people and taking dozens of foreigners hostage in what could be the first spillover from France's intervention in Mali.
The Algerian army has surrounded the complex and about 1,600 kilometres from the coast, there is no obvious way for the kidnappers to escape in their four wheel drive vehicles with their hostages.
A militant group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in revenge for Algeria's support of France's operation against al-Qaeda-linked Malian rebels groups far to the southeast. It said it was holding 41 foreigners, including seven Americans.
Algerian forces have surrounded the complex and the state news agency reported a bit more than 20 people were being held, including Americans, Britons, Norwegians, French and Japanese, citing the local authorities.
"Algeria will not respond to terrorist demands and rejects all negotiations," Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said on television. He denied that the militants were from Mali or Libya, possibly suggesting they were from Algeria itself.
In a statement BP said the site was "attacked and occupied by a group of unidentified armed people," and some of its personnel are believed to be "held by the occupiers."
The number and identities of the hostages was still unclear, but Ireland announced that a 36-year-old married Irish man was among them, while Japan and Britain said their citizens were involved as well. A Norwegian woman said her husband called her saying he had been taken hostage.
Algeria's top security official, Interior Minister Daho Ould Kabila, said that "security forces have surrounded the area and cornered the terrorists, who are in one wing of the complex's living quarters."
He said one Briton and one Algerian were killed in the attack, while a Norwegian and two other Britons were among the six wounded.
"We reject all negotiations with the group, which is holding some 20 hostages from several nationalities," Kabila said on national television, raising the specter of a possible armed assault to try to free the hostages.
Algerian forces have surrounded the kidnappers and negotiations for the release of the hostages are ongoing, an Algerian security official based in the region said, adding that the militants had come from Mali. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Hostages from up to 10 countries
A group called the Katibat Moulathamine, or the Masked Brigade, called a Mauritanian news outlet to say one of its subsidiaries had carried out the operation on the Ain Amenas gas field, taking 41 hostages from nine or 10 different nationalities.
The group's claim could not be independently substantiated and typically there would be fewer than 20 foreign staff members on site on a typical day, along with hundreds of Algerian employees.
The caller to the Nouakchott Information Agency, which often carries announcements from extremist groups, did not give any further details, except to say that the kidnapping was carried out by "Those Who Signed in Blood," a group created to attack the countries participating in the ongoing offensive against Islamist groups in Mali.
He said the operation was to punish Algeria for allowing French jets attacking rebel groups in Mali to use its airspace.
French President Francois Hollande launched the surprise operation in its former West African colony on Friday, with hopes of stopping al-Qaeda-linked and other Islamist extremists he believes pose a danger to the world.
Wednesday's attack began with the ambush of a bus carrying employees from the gas plant to the nearby airport but the attackers were driven off, according to the Algerian government, which said three vehicles of heavily armed men were involved.
"After their failed attempt, the terrorist group headed to the complex's living quarters and took a number of workers with foreign nationalities hostage," said the statement, adding that authorities were following the situation very closely.
Attacks on oil-rich Algeria's hydrocarbon facilities are very rare, despite decades of fighting an Islamist insurgency, mostly in the north of the country.
In the last several years, however, al-Qaeda's influence in the poorly patrolled desert wastes of southern Algeria and northern Mali and Niger has grown and it operates smuggling and kidnapping networks throughout the area. Militant groups that seized control of northern Mali already hold seven French hostages as well as four Algerian diplomats.
The natural gas field where the attack occurred, however, is more than 1,000 kilometers from the Mali border, though it is just 100 kilometers from Libya's deserts.
Britain and Japan involved
The British Foreign Office confirmed that "British nationals are caught up in the incident," while the U.S. embassy in Algiers said in a statement it wasn't "aware of any U.S. citizen casualties."
BP, together with Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian state oil company, Sonatrach, operate the gas field. A Japanese company, JGC Corp, provides services for the facility as well.
Prime Minister David Cameron's office said "several British nationals" are involved in the "ongoing incident," without giving an exact number.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the kidnapped foreigners possibly include Japanese employees of JGC.
"We are certain that JGC is the one affected," Suga said, adding that the government is now negotiating with local officials through diplomatic channels, asking to protect the lives of the Japanese nationals.
Japanese news agencies, citing unnamed government officials have said there are three Japanese hostages.
Late Wednesday, Statoil said five employees — four Norwegians and a Canadian — were safe at an Algerian military camp and two of them had suffered minor injuries. It said 12 employees were unaccounted for.
In Ottawa, a Foreign Affairs spokersperson said the department was "aware of one Canadian who was reported to be in the area and have confirmed their safety. We do not believe that there are Canadians or dual-nationals among the hostages," the spokesperson wrote in emailed comments.
The Norwegian Newspaper Bergens Tidende said a 55-year-old Norwegian working on the site called his wife to say he had been abducted.
Algeria had long warned against military intervention against the rebels in northern Mali, fearing the violence could spill over its own long and porous border. Though its position softened slightly after Hollande visited Algiers in December, Algerian authorities remain skeptical about the operation and worried about its consequences on the region.
Algeria is Africa's biggest country, and has been an ally of the U.S. and France in fighting terrorism for years. But its relationship with France has been fraught with lingering resentment over colonialism and the bloody war for independence that left Algeria a free country 50 years ago.
Algeria's strong security forces have struggled for years against Islamist extremists, and have in recent years managed to nearly snuff out violence by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb around its home base in northern Algeria. In the meantime, AQIM moved its focus southward.
AQIM has made tens of millions of dollars off kidnapping in the region, abducting Algerian businessmen or political figures for ransom and sometimes foreigners.