Islamist militants who kidnapped a group of oil workers in southern Algeria say that 35 hostages were killed during an army raid.
They claimed that strafing by Algerian army helicopters killed 15 kidnappers and 35 hostages, reported The Associated Press.
Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia told Reuters that the captors were led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Islamist fighter who battled the Soviets during the occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Belmokhtar later headed a branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Belmokhtar has been described as “Mr. Uncatchable” or “Mister Marlboro” due to his illegal cigarette-smuggling business that helped fund his jihad. He apparently had ties with Islamist rebels occupying towns in northern Mali.
The militants called a Mauritanian news outlet during the hostage situation, saying that France should end its intervention in northern Mali in order to ensure that the hostages would not be killed.
Algerian army forces had said they would not cooperate with the kidnappers’ demands. The kidnappers were apparently trying to seek a safe passage.
“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,” reads a statement from the hostage-takers published in Mauritanian media, according to Reuters. It criticized Algeria for allowing French warplanes fly over the country as well as over Mali.
There were reports that four hostages, including two Britons, a French citizen, and a Kenyan were freed, according to CNN. But AP reported that the surviving hostages include three Belgians, two Americans, one British national, and a Japanese national, as well as an Irish citizen.
However, there were conflicting reports as to how many people were killed or freed. A local source told Reuters that six foreign hostages were killed and eight captors were also slain after the Algerian army fired on a vehicle containing them.
BP partially oversees the Amenas oil site located near the border with Libya and 1,200 miles south of the Algerian capital, Algiers. The company said that the situation is still unclear and that they are looking for updates from local officials.
“Sadly, there have been some reports of casualties but we are still lacking any confirmed or reliable information. There are also reports of hostages being released or escaping,” the company said in a statement. It added, “As a precautionary measure, staged plans are underway to bring a group of non-essential workers out of Algeria.”
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