01/19/2013, 00.00
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Hostage crisis in the Sahara. International diplomacy confused and frustrated

At least 20 foreigners - perhaps 32 - are still in the hands of Islamic militants. Among them: Japanese, Thai, Filipino, Korean. The group linked to al Qaeda asks U.S. to exchange hostages with two Islamists jailed for terrorist attacks.

Algiers (AsiaNews / Agencies) - One of the biggest international crises linked to hostages has entered its fourth day, while confusing news abounds on those kidnapped and world capitals remain powerless.

Two days ago the Algerian security forces launched an attack on a gas complex extraction in Tigantourine, near In Amenas - 1300km south-east of Algiers - and asked the diplomatic world not to intervene even if they had compatriots involved in the kidnapping.

Still today, the news is confusing. The state news agency APS says that 12 people were killed at the beginning of the blitz Algerians and foreigners. At least 573 Algerians were released along with "about 100" of the 132 foreign, 18 Islamist militants were killed. A remaining group of militants are holed up in an area of the ​​huge refinery and are armed with rockets, grenades, machine guns and sniper rifles. At least 20 foreigners - other sources say 32 - are still in the hands of the Islamists or are missing.

Among the missing are 14 Japanese, 8 Norwegian, 10 British, an unknown number of Americans, people from Romania, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea and Austria.

Political leaders of the United Kingdom, Japan, the United States have expressed their frustration with the blitz, decided without consultation and they criticize the lack of information. Many nations involved are avoiding giving news about their missing citizens, to avoid giving information that could strengthen the positions of the kidnappers.

The Ani agency, based in Mauritania and in touch with the Islamists, says the militant group, linked to al Qaeda, wants to exchange their American hostages with two Islamic figures held in the United States. They are Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, sentenced after the attack on the World Trade Center in New York (1992) and the Pakistani scientist Aafia Siddiqui, who was sentenced for an attempted murder of U.S. soldiers (2010). Previously, the group had demanded the end of French military intervention in Mali.

France, however, sees the hostage crisis, as a confirmation of its decision.

Security in the Sahara has always been a problem.  Smugglers and Islamic militants have often used kidnappings to accumulate wealth and to support their projects. The end of Gaddafi and civil war in Libya has allowed them to collect a lot of sophisticated weapons. Now militants linked to al Qaeda are expanding their presence in Algeria, Libya, North Mali, to Nigeria, splitting North and Central Africa in two and endangering the energy sources of the West.


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