Live updates on the Algeria hostage crisis

January 17, 2013

At a remote Algerian gas field, militants and Algerian authorities clashed today, with conflicting reports saying some hostages, possibly Americans among them, may have been killed and others may have escaped.

Video: A hostage’s story

Irish Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore spoke with CNN about the Irish citizen who is reported to have escaped from the Algerian hostage crisis: Stephen McFaul. Gilmore recounts some of the more harrowing details of McFaul's ordeal.

"I understand that what happened is that the kidnappers attempted to move their captives by convoy," he says. "I think there were probably about five vehicles involved. The Algerian authorities, it would appear, attempted to stop that from happening, and in the ensuing confusion, Stephen McFaul escaped and was brought to safety and is now with the Algerian military."

Gilmore emphasizes the difficulty of knowing just what happened, saying that even McFaul's own "sense of what happened is quite unclear." He says that McFaul called his wife on Wednesday as the militants were in the process of attacking the compound. McFaul was allowed to keep his cell phone and later told his wife, either by text message or by calling (it's not clear), that he was under the impression that the militants were demanding to exchange their prisoners for al-Qaeda prisoners held in Mali.

According to Gilmore, McFaul and other hostages were made to wear vests covered in plastic "semtex" explosives while they were being moved. The big question is whether the militants thought those vests would deter the Algerian military from attacking, or if they intended to use them in acts of terrorism.

When asked if he has any idea as to why the Algerian military went ahead with its assault on the facility without first consulting outside governments, Gilmore says that the Algerian authorities he spoke to had mentioned an impasse with the hostage-takers. Apparently, the militants wanted to move locations with the hostages and the Algerians were, according to the foreign ministry official Gilmore spoke to, not prepared to let that happen.

Given McFaul's recollection of events, it sounds possible that the raid began when the Algerian military attempted to halt the militants from moving the hostages in a convoy.

Hostage rescue is always risky

The emerging narrative on the Algerian hostage crisis so far seems to be one of the Algerian military going ahead with a high-stakes, high-risk assault to retake the gas complex seized by militants and free the hostages. Foreign governments, including that of the U.S., have been critical of the operation; Japan openly called for the Algerian military to pull back. We don't yet know for sure how that action worked out, but preliminary reports have not been encouraging.

Hostage-rescue raids have a dark history – so dark that, according to Steve LeVine of Quartz, governments tend to consider them an absolute final resort. LeVine, in a great piece on what makes these operations so different from the versions you see in the movies, also explains that Algeria may have been particularly poorly equipped for such a mission.

The history of rescue-missions-gone-wrong–Munich, Tehran, Nord-Ost and today in Algeria–demonstrates why they are one of the hardest operations that special teams carry out. The trouble is the moving parts, experts say–the layout and location of the place they are being held; the mood, experience, objective and weapons of the kidnappers; and the number, mood and condition of the hostages.

There are "legendary successes," LeVine writes, but of course you tend to hear more about those than the spectacular failures. Maybe the biggest reason is that, in any clash between hostage-takers and military or police forces, "the leverage seems to be on the side of the captors." That's why governments tend to emphasize negotiation as a first, lower-risk approach. But Algeria didn't seem to want to do that.

Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, said that people simply have an inaccurate image of hostage situations–”the myth of the surgical strike,” in which special forces wearing black masks swoop in and rescue victims “like in the movies.” “It can become a real disaster,” Galeotti told me. “[Algeria] is a classic example.”
It is not that the Algerians are not set up for such operations. Since the mid-1990s, they have had French-trained special forces known as the GIS. But they are action-driven, and typically do not include negotiators, who are the front line of western hostage situations, Galeotti said. In successful rescue operations, you want to go as far as you can using negotiators. “Good operators realize that in a complex environment, the high-adrenaline rescue mission is rarely the best option,” he said. “It is the last, worse case.”

If the Algerian mission turns out to have gone as badly as the preliminary reports say, then expect to hear more displeasure from foreign governments.

Belmokhtar’s December video

As part of our ongoing look into the life and ideology of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the 40-year-old Algerian Islamist fighter who is believed to have masterminded today’s hostage crisis, here is the summary of a video he released in December. These videos are a common ideological currency in the jihadist community, a way to talk ideology, navigate complicated jihadist politics, and, of course, to show off.

High-flying rhetoric is the norm with such videos, as are wild claims and threats. The video, which is described here by terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann, seems to include a lot of boilerplate comments. The France-bashing is pretty standard for Algerian groups, which see France as supporting the secular, military government that fought a civil war with Islamists in the 1990s. Still, by highlighting his new group, Belmokhtar also calls attention to his split with other North African jihadist groups, possibly including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

(We're having some technical problems with embedding Kohlmann's tweets describing the video. In the meantime, you can read them as a Storify here.)


Report: ‘Firing from helicopters’

A lengthy ABC News report on the Algerian military operation quotes a British "security source" portraying the attack as reckless. The report is datelined from the Algerian capital:

A British security source, citing a contact close to the scene, told CBS News "that the Algerians were firing from helicopters at anything that moved," but could not confirm any deaths.

Meanwhile, an unarmed American Predator drone arrived over the gas plant late Thursday afternoon, giving the U.S. its first independent look at the situation, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports.

Martin also reports that the Algerians said they didn't want any U.S. military assistance.

Report on alleged deaths

Reuters has what it says are the numbers and nationalities of people killed in the Algerian military raid on the gas complex. It cites only a "source" for the information, which has not been confirmed by other outlets -- we should consider this only preliminary and unconfirmed. The information is on the Reuters liveblog but is most easily read as this series of Reuters tweets:

 

 

 

Reuters also has what it says are numbers on the militants killed:

 

 

If these reports turn out to be accurate, then the relatively high number of civilian casualties would seem to underscore the deep concern that foreign governments, including that of the U.S., expressed about the Algerian military raid.

Jihadist politics of Algeria

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the 40-year-old Algerian Islamist fighter who is believed to have masterminded today's hostage crisis, has a complicated history with the region's jihadist movements. Once a senior official with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a regional group that has carried the al-Qaeda name since 2006, he now leads his own group. Harvey Morris of the International Herald Tribune has some interesting details on Belmokhtar's maneuvering within jihadist politics and what connection that might have to today's crisis:

Mr. Belmokhtar might also be seeking to reassert his role as a central player in the factionalized Islamist politics of the region after a recent move by the local Qaeda affiliate to push him aside.

He was removed from a military leadership role in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in October, according to French broadcaster RFI, after falling out with the movement’s leaders.

He then announced the creation of his own brigade as part of a rapprochement with Mujao, a jihadist group that has broken with Al Qaeda.

He is also thought to be close to leaders of Mali’s Tuareg tribesmen, possibly through one of his many marriages. The Tuareg’s seizure of northern Mali last year was rapidly taken over by jihadists.

Is Belmokhtar trying to regain his stature among North African jihadists, either as a primary or secondary goal of the gas complex attack? It's an interesting theory.

David Cameron’s statement

Here is the full transcript of British Prime Minister David Cameron's statement on the Algerian crisis, now a few hours old. Talk about ominous: he seems to be preparing Britons for the worst.

Cameron: We face a very bad situation at this BP compound in Algeria. A number of British citizens have been taken hostage. Already we know of one who has died. The Algerian armed forces have now attacked this compound. It is a very dangerous, very uncertain, very fluid situation and I think we have to prepare ourselves for bad news ahead. COBR officials here are working around the clock to do everything we can to keep in contact with the families, to build the fullest possible picture of the information and intelligence we have. I have chaired meetings of COBR today and I’ll continue to do so and I will do everything I can to update people about what is a difficult, dangerous and potentially very bad situation.

Question: Do you expect the numbers of British casualties to rise?

Cameron: We know that there were a number of British citizens that were taken hostage and one who very sadly died. We know that this is a difficult situation as Algerian forces have attacked the compound and it’s a fluid situation that is ongoing and it is very uncertain; so I don’t want to say anymore than that now, but I think we should be prepared for further bad news, very difficult news in this extremely difficult situation.

Report on American hostages

This comes from ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz, who is currently traveling with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. This report is preliminary; don't be surprised if later reports contradict this one. U.S. officials have already complained publicly about being kept in the dark on the Algerian raid. Also keep in mind that we do not know for sure whether or not the militants still hold any hostages.

Algeria takes some heat

The U.S., British, and Japanese government are all expressing some real displeasure with the Algerian government for going ahead with a dice-rolling raid on the gas facility without warning them first. It also sounds as if they don't feel Algeria has been terribly forthcoming with information. Here's Al Jazeera English:

Several countries whose nationals were among those taken hostage were critical of Algeria's military operation to free the captives.

Japan urged the Algerian government to put an "immediate end" to the operation.

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the US administration was "concerned about reports of loss of life and are seeking clarity from the government of Algeria".

Britain was not given prior notice of the Algerian government operation to release hostages and would have preferred to have been informed, Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman said.

France, a close ally of Algeria's military-dominated government and the country's former colonial master, does not seem to have made any similar complaints about being kept in the dark.

Reuters: military raid is over?

Reuters quotes Algeria's official news agency as announcing that the military raid on the gas complex had ended. The report – sourced to a state-run news agency quoting an anonymous official – has not been independently confirmed. It's not clear whether or not we are meant to understand this as implying that the military has overrun the complex, or that it has simply stopped its assault. It's currently 9:29 p.m. in Algeria, six hours ahead of U.S. east coast time, so the dark conditions may have discouraged the military from continuing any attack.

ALGIERS, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Algeria’s state news agency APS said on Thursday that the military operation to free hostages at a remote desert gas facility had ended, quoting an unnamed official source who gave no further details. (Reporting by Lamine Chikhi; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

First reports on Algerian raid

The Algerian military has assaulted the gas field in an operation that, according to an Algerian government statement over the radio, has rescued some hostages but resulted in some deaths as well. These reports, which appear in the New York Times. Wall Street Journal, and Reuters are preliminary and have not been confirmed by sources outside of the Algerian government.

Reuters also reports that the Algerian state news agency says that the military operation has ended.

Here, from the Times, are some quotes from the Algerian radio announcement translated into English:

The operation resulted in the neutralization of a large number of terrorists and the liberation of a considerable number of hostages,” [Communications Minister Mohand Saïd] Oublaïd said. “Unfortunately, we deplore also the death of some, as well as some who were wounded. We do not have final numbers.”

He also said “the operation is ongoing, given the complexity of the site, to liberate the rest of the hostages and those who are trapped inside.”

Uncertainty on American hostages?

The White House, judging by the today's press conference, is being careful not to give any indication one way or another as to the status of the Americans taken hostage in Algeria. Here's Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin:

At Thursday's White House press briefing, Press Secretary Jay Carney said there's no definitive information on whether the Americans are among the dead or the living.

"We are in contact with Algerian authorities and our international partners as well as with BP's security office in London. Unfortunately, the best information we have at this time, as I said, indicates that U.S. citizens are among the hostages. But we don't have, at this point, more details to provide to you. We're certainly concerned about reports of loss of life and are seeking clarity from the government of Algeria," he said.

"But at this point you can't say whether those Americans are alive or dead?" a reporter asked Carney.

"I just can only say that we are deeply concerned about any loss of innocent life and are seeking clarity from the government of Algeria," he said.

This detail-poor statement could be for several possible reasons. That the White House doesn't know is just one possible explanation. It's also possible, for example, that the White House doesn't want to inadvertently tip off the hostage-takers to some recent  development, or that officials want to hold off on any announcements until the situation resolves.

After the political backlash to the administration's early statements on the consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya which may have ultimately killed UN Ambassador Susan Rice's chances at becoming Secretary of State, the White House may feel politically compelled to say as little as possible.

Cameron: ‘Very difficult news’

British Prime Minister David Cameron, in a public statement about the ongoing hostage crisis, ominously warned Britons to prepare for the worst. "It’s a fluid situation, it’s ongoing, it’s very uncertain," he said. "We should be prepared for the possibility of further bad news, very difficult news, in this extremely difficult situation.”

A British spokesperson told the BBC that Cameron "spoke to President Obama this afternoon and shared the latest developments in Algeria and agreed that their priority was to establish the facts on the ground."

Japan protests Algerian raid

The Algerian military apparently did not alert the U.S., Britain, or Japan that it was planning to assault the gas complex where hostages from all four countries are being held, according to diplomatic officials from those countries. Japanese officials have expressed open frustration with the Algerian government, calling on them to halt the raid, which they warn could endanger the Japanese hostages. Here's the New York Times:

Japan expressed even stronger concern, saying Algeria had not only failed to advise of the operation ahead of time but that Japan had asked Algeria to halt the operation because it was endangering the hostages. “We asked Algeria to put human lives first and asked Algeria to strictly refrain,” the chief Cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, quoted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as telling his Algerian counterpart, Abdelmalek Sellal, by telephone late Thursday.

Algeria's military, which staged a coup in 1991 to cancel the country's first truly democratic elections, wields enormous political power within the country and often operates autonomously. It's not exactly the sort of country, in other words, where generals would necessarily make sure they get the go-ahead from civilian overseers who might be more concerned about, for example, diplomacy.

Cat-and-Mouse chase

U.S. and French intelligence have been tracking Algerian terrorist groups, of the same sort that seized hostages at a gas field on Wednesday, for years. The Post's Edward Cody reported on that effort in 2010. He focused on the effort to track a guy named Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, who at the time commanded some forces with a group called al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Algeria-based group that took on the al-Qaeda moniker in 2006.

Cody's story is a fascinating read. It also helps to shed some light on the threat that these groups pose, how they operate, and the cat-and-mouse game they play with Western intelligence agencies.

But with the capture of a number of European hostages over the past several years - and now a calculated effort to impose Abu Zeid's brand name on terrorist activities in the Sahel - he has emerged in the public eye as a substantial threat in mineral-rich northwestern Africa and, in the assessment of some experts, as the possible next chief of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Abu Zeid's activities may have caught the attention of U.S. counterterrorism authorities as well. In recent declarations, his group said U.S. personnel have been spotted on an Algerian military base at Tamanrasset, near the Malian border hills where Abu Zeid is headquartered, with the apparent assignment of helping local governments monitor al-Qaeda movements across the region.

Guidere, who systematically monitors al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb Internet traffic, said the United States has supplied electronic intelligence on Abu Zeid to France to help track French hostages, with U.S. personnel either stationed at or passing through Tamanrasset apparently part of the operation. In response, he added, Abu Zeid recently ordered his combatants to halt satellite telephone communications, which are vulnerable to monitoring by U.S. satellites or drones.

Cody also reported on Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who is believed to be the leader behind today's hostage crisis. At the time, Belmokhtar was also leading AQIM militants (he has since left the group to start his own), but French and U.S. officials appeared less concerned about him:

Belmokhtar, an Algerian who lost an eye fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, has been played down by European anti-terrorism specialists because, they say, he is often focused less on jihad than on raising cash by protecting cigarette and cocaine smuggling that has traditionally flourished in the area.

This again raises a question I've brought up several times today: Is Belmokhtar's attack principally motivated by commercial interests or ideological? In other words, is he just taking hostages to try to get some ransom money, as he's done in the past, or is this meant as explicitly as an act of political terrorism?

Al-Qaeda in Algeria

As is often the case with militant groups operating in the Arabic-speaking world, the one that seized a gas field in eastern Algeria appears to have some links to al-Qaeda. But those links, based on the currently available information, appear sketchy. And the group to which they may be linked, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is not the same as the Afghanistan-and-Pakistan-based "central" al-Qaeda that is better known to Americans.

Continue reading the full post over at WorldViews.

The Pentagon reacts

The Post's Craig Whitlock, who covers the Pentagon, is traveling with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. He reports here on how defense officials on the trip are talking about the hostage crisis unfolding in Algeria. So far, they seem to be cautious about what they know, are having a tough time following the events in the remote Saharan desert, or, more probably, both. Here's Whitlock:

Pentagon officials said they were still trying to sort out conflicting reports about what happened at the gas plant in Algeria, how many Americans  may have been involved, and what course of action U.S. military forces
might take in response.

"Details remain very murky over this raid and what has happened," said a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. "We're assessing reports that the Algerians may have
conducted some kind of action in connection with the incident but cannot confirm precisely what happened."

George Little, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, declined to comment on reports that a U.S. surveillance drone had been deployed to Algeria to fly over the gas plant.

In an interview Thursday with ABC News, Panetta said "about 100 people" were at the gas plant when the attack occurred, but added, "how many of them are actually being held hostage we just don't know."

He said initial reports were that the hostages included "somewhere in the vicinity" of seven or eight Americans, adding, "right now we just really don't know."

UK didn’t know about attack in advance

British Prime Minister David Cameron said he would have appreciated a little advance warning.

With Algerian insurgents holding foreign hostages, the Algerian government launched a military operation without notifying London, an official inside 10 Downing Street for Cameron said after the British leader's phone conversation with his Algerian counterpart, Abdelmalek Sellal. The hostages reportedly include some British citizens, and the gas facility held by the militants is run by BP, a British company, along with Norway’s Statoil and Algeria’s Sonatrach.

Cameron “expressed concern” at the situation, and was “disappointed” that the Algerian government had not provided advance notice before taking action, The Post's Anthony Faiola reports from London.

There have been reports of casualties in the operation, but Algeria's state news service, APS, says nearly 600 Algerian workers have been freed by the army's special forces..The report cited unidentified local sources.

 

Europe already feeling impact

Whatever the militants' motivation for seizing the In Amenas gas facility in eastern Algeria, it is already having an economic effect in Europe, which imports huge amounts of energy from North Africa. The Financial Times' Guy Chazan reports that the amount of gas pumped from Algeria across the Mediterranean has already dropped by about 10 million cubic meters a day. That's about 13 or 14 percent of all Algerian exports into Europe. In other words: it's a lot.

Chazan explains that, although this is unlikely to cause a gas shortage, it could still be bad news for the already-troubled European economy:

It could also have implications for European energy security. The continent has long been dependent on Algeria for energy imports. The country is the third-largest supplier of gas into the EU, after Russia and Norway, and In Amenas’ production alone accounts for 2 per cent of European demand.

The biggest economic pain, though, will of course be in Algeria itself. The In Amenas field produced $3.9 billion a year in exports. Energy is a big component of the Algerian economy, and this crisis, even once it ends, could risk scaring off potential investors. If you were a European energy executive, how much money would you want to put into North Africa right now?

BP: ‘Reports of casualties’

BP, a joint owner of the oil complex where hostages have been held in Algeria, has begun pulling out non-essential workers from the North Africa nation. The company issued the news in a somber release on the situation: :

We have been informed by the UK and Algerian governments that the Algerian army is attempting to take control of the In Amenas site.

The situation remains unclear and we continue to seek updates from the authorities.

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.

“Supporting these families is our priority and we are doing all we can to help during this sad and uncertain time,” said Bob Dudley, BP Group Chief Executive. We are in contact with the UK and Algerian Governments and will provide updates as soon as further confirmed information is available.

As a precautionary measure, staged plans are underway to bring a group of non-essential workers out of Algeria.

Your four-sentence catch-up on the Algeria crisis

• On Wednesday morning, a group of militants stormed a gas complex in a remote part of eastern Algeria.

• The militants issued a flurry of demands, including an end to the French intervention in neighboring Mali, in exchange for their hostages, which include Americans.

• The Algerian military is currently attempting to re-take the complex, according to the British and French foreign ministries.

• There have been reports of freed hostages, but at this point it's really hard to know what's happening.

Hostages for money or ideology?

The militants who have seized the gas complex in eastern Algeria are, according to the BBC quoting Algerian officials, led by a man named Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Two big questions that are probably on your mind right now: who is that? Is he al-Qaeda?

The short answers: he is an old-school, Afghanistan-trained jihadist who also runs a criminal network. As for the al-Qaeda question, that all depends on how you define al-Qaeda.

The longer answers are, as always, more interesting. The BBC has a big profile of Belmokhtar, which include his three nicknames, all of them quite revealing. The first is "The One-Eyed," which is self-explanatory. The second, from the French intelligence authorities who work heavily in Algeria, their former colony, is "The Uncatchable." And the third, used by local Algerians, is "Marlboro Man," for his illicit cigarette trade.

That's the thing about Algerian jihadists like Belmokhtar – you can never really tell if they use criminal enterprises to fund their jihad, or if jihad is the ideological cover for lucrative criminal activities. His militants have made a lot of claims about their reason for taking the hostages, one of which is revenge for the French military intervention in neighboring Mali. But they have also said it was to punish Algeria for cooperating with the French military, which is not particularly popular among Algerian Islamists (more on this later). And it's worth noting that Belmokhtar has been taking hostages for years, ransoming them off for large sums of money.

As to the al-Qaeda connection, Belmokhtar is believed to have trained with al-Qaeda during the 1980s Afghan-Soviet war and to have more recently been a member of the North Africa-based faction, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. But he fell out with its leaders and now leads two different groups with the names Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade and the Signed-in-Blood Battalion. It's not clear how large they are and whether these are ideology-driven or criminal organizations.

Freed hostage from N. Ireland identified

A 36-year-old man from Northern Ireland has been identified as one of the foreigners who had been held hostage in Algeria. He is free and safe, a government official and family told an Northern Ireland television network.

UTV identified the man as Stephen McFaul, of West Belfast, and said he had called his family after his release. The network said the release was confirmed by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

 

AP: Militants still claim 7 hostages

The Associated Press is reporting that a spokesperson representing the militants at the Algerian gas field say that they still hold seven hostages, including people from the U.S., Britain, Japan, and Belgium.

Other reports have indicated that the original number of hostages may have been much higher than seven. If both of those reports are true – and we can't say for sure that they are – then that would suggest that something happened to the other hostages. There are any number of possibilities. A number of sources do report that the Algerian military had raided the facility, freeing some number of the hostages.

The AP report on the remaining hostages tracks with earlier reports from the Algerian press, passed along here from Al-Jazeera English:

A hostage goes free

Ireland's Foreign Affairs office says, according to the Guardian, that an Irish citizen who had been among the hostages is now believed to be safe and "freed from captivity." He's reportedly called home.

As we noted with the earlier report that some Americans have called home, if this report is true, is does not necessarily mean that all freed hostages have called home, or that all hostages have been freed.

Air strikes?

The latest unconfirmed bit of information that's now widely reported is that the Algerian military has deployed air strikes as part of its (possible, unconfirmed) raid on the gas complex. The French Press Association (AFP) says that an air strike killed some number of people, although they appear to source it to the Algerian media, which appears to source it to a spokesperson for the militants.

If the Algerian military is using air strikes, that would be a potentially odd choice for a hostage situation. Steven Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations, briefly explained why. Whether he meant to shed skepticism on the report itself or on the potential use of air strikes, both are interesting points.

ABC: 3 U.S. hostages

A report from ABC News says three Americans were among the hostages held by Islamic insurgents in central Algeria.

The report cites an unidentified senior U.S. intelligence official and came before an Algerian military operation on the site, a natural gas field partly owned by BP.

The identities of the Americans have not been released by the U.S. government or the oil company.

Example of Algeria uncertainty

You're going to hear a lot of caveats on this liveblog about how difficult it is to know what's happening in Algeria right now. Between the fog of war and the contradictory news reports from international and local sources, it's just never easy to differentiate fact from rumor.

To illustrate that point, at 10:05 a.m. EST, the Algerian news service Tout sur l'Algerie reported that the Algerian military was now in full control of the gas complex where the hostages had been (are being?) held. The report has not been confirmed by other sources. Three minutes later, a news organization in neighboring Mauritania reported that Algerian forces were just beginning their raid. So, unless the Algerian military has developed time travel, at least one of these is wrong. That's not to pick on either news service, just a reminder of how difficult it is to really know what's happening in the east Algerian expanse.

Did U.S. hostages call home?

Fox News reports that, according to "U.S. official sources," some number of American hostages are thought to have escaped from ongoing hostage crisis and called home.

The report has not been reproduced elsewhere; many news reports on the Algeria crisis been contradictory, particularly those that discuss the possibility that some hostages have escaped. The report does not indicate whether or not all Americans are believe to have escaped, for example, or whether all escaped Americans have called home. That's not to knock Fox News, but it's important to keep these caveats in mind.

Panetta: ‘Military assets’ use possible

ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz is traveling with U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta today and, like any good reporter, asked him about the ongoing hostage crisis in Algeria. Panetta told Raddatz, according to her Twitter account, that the U.S. was considering "how we can bring our military assets to bear in order to deal with it."

Raddatz also spoke with a "senior official" who admitted that, just like the rest of us, he or she doesn't really know what's happening there. This point can't really be over-emphasized: the fog of war makes it difficult to know which contradictory reports to value and which to dismiss. That even someone this senior wouldn't know indicates just how difficult the situation is to read right now.

A map of the gas complex

A previous version of this entry showed an image of the town of In Amenas. The New York Times is now reporting the attack took place at Tiguentourine, a gas complex to the southwest of the town of In Amenas.

(The Washington Post)
(The Washington Post)

BP statement on the In Amenas gas field

The attack took place at the In Amenas gas field, in the southeast oil-rich fields of Algeria. The In Amenas gas field is operated in partnership between Algerian state oil company, Sonatrach, with BP and Statoil. BP said the site was attacked and occupied by a group of unidentified armed people on Thursday morning. The oil company put out this statement Friday:

"BP confirms that the major security incident at the In Amenas joint venture site in Algeria is continuing. The situation on site remains unresolved and fragile. Armed groups still occupy the site and hold a number of site personnel.

BP’s Chief Executive, Bob Dudley said: 'BP’s overriding priority is to do all we can to ensure the safety of our staff and to support their families during this anguishing time. All our efforts are focussed on supporting the authorities to secure a peaceful resolution of the situation and the safe return of our colleagues, and all other workers being detained.'

BP has confirmed the current status of all its staff who were at In Amenas at the time of the attack. A number of BP staff are among those held on the site. To ensure we do not risk compromising the safety of these staff in any way, we do not currently intend to publicly release details of our staff members; their number, nationalities or identities. The safety of these staff, and of all others being held, is our top priority.

We are in contact with the families of those BP staff, offering them support and information. We will remain in frequent contact with the families to provide support and update them on developments.
BP is in regular contact with the Algerian authorities, with our partners at Statoil and with other companies involved in the situation.

BP is also keeping the UK government and authorities, and those of a number of other countries, advised on developments in the evolving situation and working closely with them to liaise with the Algerian authorities and further support the families.

The In Amenas gas field and its facilities are operated by a joint venture of the Algerian national oil company Sonatrach, BP and Statoil."

Conflicting reports over hostage numbers

It's unclear how many hostages might have been taken and how many might have escaped. Here are just a few of the conflicting reports:

  • A state-run Algerian news agency said 30 Algerian workers managed to flee their captors at the In Amenas gas complex.
  • The Associated Press quoted an unidentified Algerian security official as saying at least 20 foreigners, including Americans and Europeans, escaped.
  • Private Algerian news outlets reported that 15 foreigners were able to escape.
  • Reports citing Algerian security sources said the assailants retained 20 to 40 foreign nationals, including Americans, Europeans and Japanese.
  • Al-Jazeera quotes a Mauritanian news agency that said 35 hostages and 15 kidnappers have been killed, according to the group holding the hostages.
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Olga Khazan | January 16, 2013