Members of the radical group “Katiba Moulathamin,” an offshoot of Al-Qaeda-in the Islamic Maghreb, have claimed credit for occupying the facilities of the Tigantourine gas field near the Algerian desert city of Ain Amenas, close to the Libyan border, on Wednesday. The militants kept an undisclosed number of Algerians and foreigners hostage.
A speaker for the group indicated that this action was “in response to the flagrant interference of Algeria authorizing the use of its airspace by the French Air Force to conduct raids against northern Mali.”
The Algerian government, fearing immediate threat to the lives of the hostages, acted unilaterally in sending troops to storm the residential compound where the majority of hostages were presumed to be held, in order to prevent militants from leaving the country. Estimates show that around 30 hostages and 11 militants have been killed in the ensuing firefight.
As of Thursday morning, approximately 650 hostages have been freed, including 573 Algerians. Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal told British Prime Minister David Cameron, “this first operation was complete but this is a large and complex site and they are still pursuing terrorists and possibly some of the hostages in other areas of the site.”
The Algerian state-run APS news agency says approximately 60 foreigners are still being held. Algerian forces continue to look for hostages and captors, among them American, European, and Japanese citizens.
US plane has landed near the facility to evacuate hostages.
ABOUT KATIBA MOULATHAMIN:
Katiba Moulathamin or “Those who Sign with Blood”, separated from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, but still take orders from the group. The group is presumed to be led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former fighter in Afghanistan who is known as a cigarette smuggler in the Maghreb.
The Associated Press conducted a telephone interview with Oumar Ould Hamaha, an associate of Belmokhtar. Hamaha explained Belmokhtar’s motivation for breaking away from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to form his own splinter group. Hamaha explained, “It’s so that we can better operate in the field that we have left this group which is tied to the ‘Maghreb’ appellation. We want to enlarge our zone of operation throughout the entire Sahara, going from Niger through to Chad and Burkina Faso.”
Although it is important to note that the chosen location is outside of the normal operating areas of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, attacks, such as this one, had previously been staged by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The GIA, which has been dormant since approximately 2005, was a radical Islamist group in Algeria whose primary objective was to overthrow the Algerian government and to replace it with an Islamic state. During the 1990’s, the group used a wide variety of methods in its attacks, including bombings, shootings, hijackings and kidnappings. The GIA was also known to have targeted intellectuals, journalists and foreigners both within and outside Algeria. It has been reported that between 1992 and 2002, the GIA killed more than 100 foreigners, mostly European, in Algeria. The group has links with terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda, throughout the Middle East as well as in Central and Southern Asia.
|No restrictions in this travel advice||Avoid all but essential travel to part(s) of country||Avoid all but essential travel to whole country||Avoid all travel to part(s) of country||Avoid all travel to whole country|
UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all but essential travel to areas within 450km of the Mali and Niger borders and within 100km of the Mauritania border, and against all but essential travel to areas within 50km of the Libya and Tunisia borders, south of Tebessa. In addition, the FCO advises against all but essential travel to the following administrative districts (wilayas) east of Algiers: Boumerdès, Bouira and Tizi Ouzou. It is recommended to exercise extreme caution close to this area.
The FCO advises extreme caution in all travel to the wilayas of Adrar, Tamanrasset and Illizi, south of the towns of Arak and Illizi, and caution in all travel to the following wilayas east of Algiers: Bordj Bou Arreridj, Bejaia and Skikda.
There is a high threat from terrorism in Algeria. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers such as restaurants, hotels and shopping centres. Following French military intervention in Mali, there is a possibility of retaliatory attacks targeting Western interests in the region. We advise vigilance.
Over the past 24 hours in Mali, it has been reported that French and Malian forces have continued their offensive operations against the militants. Close combat occurred on the streets of Diabaly on Wednesday when battles broke out between the soldiers and the rebels. Diabaly, which is located 350km (220 miles) north of the capital of Bamako, was taken by the Islamists on Monday. Since then, French fighter jets have attacked the rebel position in preparation for the ground assaults that are currently taking place. Currently, the town of Diabaly continues to remain under the control of the rebels. Military sources have also confirmed today that fighting has also erupted between the Malian army, and Islamist insurgents in the central town of Konna. According to sources, the fighting broke out on Wednesday afternoon near the town, whose capture by Islamist rebels last week prompted France to intervene in a bid to drive back the insurgents. Army sources and witnesses have indicated that the operations in both towns has been made more complex due to the fact that the Islamists fighters have merged with the populations and have been using them as human shields.
Officials have announced that on Thursday, 190 Nigerian troops will be flown in from the northern city of Kaduna into Mali in order to help fight the Islamist insurgents in the northern region of the country. This will be the first West African contingent to join France’s anti-rebel operation which was launched in Mali last Friday. In turn, the arrival of the first Nigerian troops will also undoubtedly bring some relief to the French soldiers who are currently receiving only limited support from the fairly weak Malian army. Although it has been reported that 3,300 regional troops will be deployed in the conflict under a United Nations Security Council resolution sources have indicated that this number may reach to over 5,000 troops. Nigeria will lead this West African regional force and it has promised to send a total of 900 troops as well as fighter jets. Chad has confirmed that it will send 2,000 soldiers who will join the anti-rebel operations while Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Niger and Senegal have also pledged to take part. Togo has also pledged to send troops in which forty Togolese soldiers arrived in Mali on Thursday. France currently has some 1,400 troops positioned on the ground and defence sources have indicated that this number is expected to rise to 2,500.
Although officials in France previously had indicated that this intervention will most likely last weeks and not months, French President Francois Hollande has indicated that Fance’s parliament will hold a vote on the operation if it has to be extended beyond four months. In a separate development, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court has opened a war crimes investigation that will focus on the acts that have been committed in the some of the northern regions of the country since January 2012. Fatou Bensouda has indicated that “at each stage during the conflict, different armed groups have caused grave human suffering through a range of alleged acts of extreme violence.” Concluding that “ I have determined that some of these deeds of brutality and destruction may constitute war crimes.”
Yesterday’s kidnapping incident has continued to rapidly unfold over the past twenty-four hours as Algerian forces moved against the Islamic militants holding hostages at a BP gas facility in eastern Algeria. The current disposition is unclear, however what is evident is that this incident is linked as a direct consequence of French military operations in Mali. Several media outlets have reported that four foreigners – two from Scotland, one from France and one from Kenya – along with nearly 600 Algerian workers were freed but that a number of people were killed in the military operation. Ireland’s foreign ministry has also indicate that the Irishman who was also kidnapped has since been freed. Reports earlier on in the day indicated that fifteen foreigners and thirty Algerian hostages had also managed to escape from the plant.
The operation began when Algerian soldiers surrounded the facility, which is located in Amenas, shortly after kidnappers had occupied the facility on Wednesday afternoon. Although the operation was seen by Algerian officials as necessary, many heads of state, whose nationals were amongst the hostages at the remote gas plant, have voiced their concerns. Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal called his UK counterpart, Prime Minister David Cameron to say that the operation was under way at 11:30GMT. A spokesman for the Prime Minister has since indicated that Mr. Cameron made it clear that he would have preferred to have been informed in advance however the Algerians have maintained that they had to act immediately. Mr. Cameron has also indicated that the current situation remains to be “fluid, ongoing and very uncertain,” and that Britain “should be prepared for further bad news.” In turn, the White House has also indicated that it is “seeking clarity” on the operation while Japan has demanded that the assault be immediately stopped.
Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kabila indicated that the kidnappers were Algerian and that they were operating under the orders of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was a senior commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) until late last year. Belmokhtar has since claimed responsibility for launching the attack. Although he was one of the leaders of AQIM, he was pushed out of the organization towards the end of last year and has since set up a group called “Signatories in Blood.” He has also been blamed for previous abductions and the killings of both Algerians and foreigners. However currently, the reasoning behind the attack remains to be unclear. One statement, which was released by the hostage-takers, called for an end to the French military intervention that is currently occurring in Mali.
MS Risk continues to monitor the events in Mali, Algeria and throughout West Africa. We encourage that all companies throughout the region follow the previous advice that MS Risk has provided in relation to their safety and security considerations.
Over the past several days, France has continued its advance against Islamist militants in Mali, with airstrikes occurring throughout the central and northern regions of the country. However officials in France have indicated that there are at least two concentrations of armed Islamist rebels that continue to be a concern. The first is the village of Konna, which is located 550km from Bamako. Konna is symbolically important as it was the first place which fell to Islamist militants last week. The second is the town of Diabaly where Islamists moved in after the French air campaign against them began in other locations. On Wednesday, French and Malian sources confirmed that French troops have been fighting rebels in Diabaly in what is the first major ground operation to have occurred since the French intervened last Friday. Diabaly, which is located 350 km (220 miles) north of the capital city of Bamako, was captured from Malian forces by fighters on Monday. They were led by Algerian Abou Zeid, one of the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Since then, French war planes have been attacking the rebel positions. Back in Paris, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed that “today, the ground forces are being deployed. Until now, we had made sure there were a few ground forces in Bamako to keep our people safe…now French ground forces are heading up north.” Furthermore, he indicated that the western zone where Diabaly lies is home to “the toughest, most fanatical and best-organized groups.” As such, it is highly likely that the fighting will occur for several days. On the ground sources have also reported that a convoy of 50 armoured vehicles left Bamako overnight while residents in Niono, which is 70km south of Diabaly, have indicated that the French arrived overnight.
Currently, France has some 800 troops on the ground in Mali and Defence sources have confirmed that the numbers are expected to increase to 2,500. Since the start of the intervention, France has also been pushing for the deployment of a West African regional force. A company of 190 Nigerians will be the first to arrive on Wednesday. Followed by West African troops, in which Nigeria will lead the force, with 900 troops out of 3,300. Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Niger, Senegal and Togo have also pledged to take part in the intervention. Other countries, including the United Kingdom and Germany have also been aiding France. The UK has provided transport planes and on Wednesday, Germany confirmed that it is providing Transall transport planes as logistical support.
Meanwhile regional security has already been affected by the military intervention in Mali as was witnessed on Wednesday when al-Qaeda-linked fighters attacked a gas plant in neighbouring Algeria in which several foreigners were taken hostage. This type of kidnap incident is in line with previous MS Risk warnings since November 2012. State media has indicated that two people have been killed while seven have been left wounded. Reports have indicated that a Briton was amongst the two foreigners killed in the attack however the Foreign Office in London has indicated that currently it cannot confirm these reports. Reports have also surfaced that the militants are allegedly holding 41 foreigners, including US, French, British and japanese citizens, however these reports have yet to be confirmed. The attack occurred on a British oil giant BP field in Amenas, in the Sahara desert. The gas plant is located 1,300km (810 miles) southeast of Algiers, close to the border with Libya. An Algerian deputy has indicated that five staff members, one French national and four Japanese, have been taken hostage. The Irish foreign ministry has indicated that a man from Northern Ireland and a Norwegian are also among the hostages. Currently, al-Qaeda-linked militants have claimed responsibility for the attack and the kidnappings, indicating that they “are members of al-Qaeda” and that they came from northern Mali. This attack in Algeria seems to be the first reprisal by the Islamists who have vowed to strike back. It also comes shortly after Algerian agreed to support the Mali offensive and opened it airspace to French fighter jets. It has also occurred two days after the country closed its border with Mali.