Algiers (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Dozens of Western and Asian citizens have been taken hostage by a group of Islamists with past links to Al Qaeda. The guerrilla group, which calls itself "The battalion of blood", yesterday raided a gas extraction plant in In Amenas in the south of the country and captured 41 non-Algerians, including seven Americans, five Japanese, nine Norwegians and other European citizens including French, Irish, and Austrians.
Daho Ould Kabila, Algerian Minister of the Interior said that the militants are led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former fighter in Afghanistan against the Soviets, then commander of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and recently the leader of a group of his own.
The demands of the Islamist group are diverse, although unconfirmed: they want the release of 100 jailed militants in Algeria and an end to French attacks in Mali, an operation against Islamic militants with UN Security Council backing and the military and technical support of some European countries and Algeria itself.
France was pushing for military intervention in the ancient colony of Mali in fear that Islamist groups could reach the capital Bamako and strengthen their presence in the Sahara and Central Africa, accumulating money and weapons from Libya. Now the fear has widened Paris and other Western countries fear that the Islamists may also attack through their network within Europe.
Before taking the hostages, the militants ambushed a bus, escorted by the Algerian police, killing a Briton and an Algerian.
The Islamists have imprisoned the hostages in one part of the plant, which is located 1300 km south-east of Algiers and 60 km west of the Libyan border. They say they have mined the entire perimeter of the complex and warned that any attempt to free the hostages by force would lead to "a tragic conclusion."
The Algerian government has ruled out any help from the United States and France in resolving the crisis.
This afternoon, the British Foreign Ministry announced that Algerian forces launched an operation near the In Amenas plant to free the hostages.
According to some reports, the militants told news agencies in Mauretania that 34 hostages were killed along with 14 kidnappers. Seven hostages are said to be alive.
An Algerian news agency reported the release of four hostages.
None of the aforementioned has been officially confirmed.