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Algeria hostage crisis not over; Mali fight intensifies (LIVE BLOG)

Algeria hostage crisis details hard to find as rescue operation continues. France's fight against Islamist militants in Mali pushes on.

GLOBALPOST MALI-ALGERIA CONFLICT LIVE BLOG

UPDATE: 1/18/13 5:50 PM ET

This live blog has ended for the day, but check for breaking news developments here.

UPDATE: 1/18/13 5:15 PM ET

Clinton defends Algeria's actions

As news of American hostages still being held in Algeria emerged, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking from Japan, said, "utmost care must be taken to preserve innocent life."

World leaders have been increasingly critical of Algeria's handling of the hostage crisis, with the leaders of the UK and Japan expressing concern that they were given no prior notice of the Algerian army's rescue operation which may have resulted in some loss of life.

Clinton, the Associated Press noted, defended Algeria's action:

Let's not forget: This is an act of terror. The perpetrators are the terrorists. They are the ones who have assaulted this facility, have taken hostage Algerians and others from around the world as they were going about their daily business.

UPDATE: 1/18/13 4:45 PM ET

Mali: Islamists abandon town of Diabaly

Malian military sources said that Islamist rebels had vacated the central town of Diabaly on Friday following a French airstrike, according to Reuters. Meanwhile, West African troops had arrived in Bamako to engage the insurgents in the country's north.

"They (the Islamists) fled the town, dressed as civilians, early this morning. They abandoned their weapons and ammunition," said a Malian military source, according to Reuters.

UNICEF has called on the commanders of all armed forces in Mali, including the insurgent groups and militias, to "take every possible measure to protect children from the impact of hostilities - to stop the recruitment and use of children in their ranks and keep children out of harm's way."

The agency said:

UNICEF is gravely concerned about children being used in fighting. There is a high risk of separation from their families, which can make children much more vulnerable to many forms of abuse, including recruitment, sexual abuse, child trafficking and other forms of violence against children.

The New York Times published a timeline of the events unfolding in the Sahara Desert, in Mali and Algeria.

German broadcast network Deutsche Welle noted that press freedom in Mali since the overthrow of President Amadou Toumani Touré has taken a hit.

Christoph Dreyer, the Africa specialist from Reporters Without Borders, said, "Since then, press freedom has been constantly thwarted. Journalists have been threatened, even kidnapped, editorial staff have been wiretapped and editors and informants called in for interrogation."

"There have also been armed attacks on radio stations. Several reporters were kidnapped, beaten and seriously injured."

UPDATE: 1/18/13 4:10 PM ET

One American killed in Algeria hostage crisis

US officials have confirmed that one American died in the hostage crisis in Algeria. The American identified by the AP died in the Algerian gas complex. The cause of death was unclear, but the Associated Press said his remains have been recovered and his family has been notified.

UPDATE: 1/18/13 3:50 PM ET

Hostages who were freed express relief

Algerian state TV broadcast videos of some of the hostages who were freed in Algeria. The Guardian noted the interviews with Algerians were in Arabic and those with Turkish and Filipino workers in English.

The Guardian said:

The hostages describe taking cover as the military mounted an attack. Some were freed by the military; others appear to have run to freedom. The broadcast depicts the actions of the Algerian army as heroic, with repeated promptings by the interviewer for the former hostages to praise the military's actions.

The Daily Telegraph posted this video of hostages from the UK who were rescued and on their way home:

UPDATE: 1/18/13 3:10 PM ET

Hostages still in Algerian militant group's hands

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a visit to Japan, said the US remains "deeply concerned" about the foreign workers still missing in the Algerian hostage crisis.

While holding a joint press conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida, Clinton expressed condolences for the families who lost loved ones in the initial attack and the Algerian military rescue operation mounted on Thursday. She also stressed that the US should work with Algeria on counterterrorism efforts.

Agence France Presse quoted an agency report claiming one Briton is among the seven foreign hostages still being held in Algeria. The Telegraph said the others reportedly include two Americans, three Belgians and one Japanese. The reports are not confirmed by any governments or officials.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirming that a Frenchman was among those killed in the operation to rescue hostages.

"The Algerian authorities have just informed us that one of our compatriots, Mr. Yann Desjeux, unfortunately lost his life during the operation to free hostages," Fabius said in a statement.

Three Frenchmen were saved in the operation.

UPDATE: 1/18/13 2:40 PM ET

Algerian state news agency reports 12 hostages killed

Algerian state news agency APS now says that 12 hostages were killed in Algeria, including Algerians and foreign workers. The toll is much lower than the 34 originally reported killed on Thursday.

APS also said on Friday that 18 of the hostage takers were also killed, citing an anonymous security source, the Associated Press reported.

Just to recap, the state news agency also said that nearly 100 of the 132 foreign workers who were captured had been freed. Thirty foreign workers remain unaccounted for.

While the governments of the US, UK, Japan and Norway have confirmed that some of their citizens were among those captured, they have not released official figures on how many hostages of each nationality are still missing.

UPDATE: 1/18/13 1:50 PM ET

Mali Islamists tougher than expected

While the situation is Algeria is far from resolved, French troops in Mali are finding that their Islamist militant opponents are tougher than expected, according to diplomats.

Reuters reported that the desert fighters are better trained and equipped than France had anticipated, citing French and other UN diplomats.

"Our enemies were well-armed, well-equipped, well-trained and determined," said a senior French diplomat, speaking anonymously. "The first surprise was that some of them are holding the ground," he said, while adding that others had fled during airstrikes.

Agence France-Presse released this video (via the Guardian) of French troops getting into position in Markala, Mali:

UPDATE: 1/18/13 1:40 PM ET

US will not 'negotiate with terrorists'

US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters on Friday, "The United States does not negotiate with terrorists," without elaborating further, according to Agence France Presse.

The group believed to be holding the hostages in Algeria proposed an exchange of US hostages for terrorists held in US prisons.

The State Dept. also confirmed that Americans are among the hostages still being held in Algeria.

 

According to Nuland, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Algerian Prime Minister Salal for a third straight day, getting updates on the hostage situation.

"The situation remains extremely fluid on the ground," Nuland said, according to Politico. "This was an opportunity to get [Salal’s] perspective on what is happening on the ground, how the operation is unfolding. She expressed concern for our citizens, they had some detailed conversation about that.

"They are dealing with people who have no respect for human life," said Nuland.

UPDATE: 1/18/13 1:20 PM ET

Where are the foreign hostages reportedly from?

Militants are reported to have seized hostages from at least 9 foreign countries, in addition to hundreds of Algerians. About 100 are said to have been released, while about 32 others are said to be unaccounted for. The Telegraph broke down the numbers by country.

One British hostage was confirmed killed on Wednesday, while a lone Irish hostage escaped unharmed. The number of unaccounted-for Brits — said to be 30 on Thursday — is currently unknown, but now "significantly reduced," according to Prime Minister David Cameron

Eight Norwegian Statoil employees are unaccounted for, Norway's health minister told reporters. Seven Japanese nationals were accounted for, while 10 were not, JGC Corp confirmed to the Telegraph. The Telegraph also reported two Malaysian hostages, and conflicting reports about the status of hostages from the Philippines.

Hostages are also reported to have come from the United States, France and Romania. Find out more here.

UPDATE: 1/18/13 12:46 PM ET

PBS News Hour report looks at challenges of combating Islamist militants

A PBS broadcast that aired Thursday looked at the the fight against militants in Saharan Africa and the role of the US. For background, see GlobalPost's in-depth series on the rise of militant Islamism across Africa.

UPDATE: 1/18/13 12:25 PM ET

Latest numbers from the Algerian Press Service: 32 foreigners, 23 Algerians still unaccounted for

As of 12 p.m. ET, the Washington Post reports that around 32 foreign hostages are still "unaccounted for" after the hostage-taking at a remote gas plant operated jointly by companies BP and Statoil, and Sonatrach, the state energy company.

Citing local media, CNN reported a total of 705 workers — 132 foreigners and 573 Algerians — were taken hostage by militants at the facility. On Friday, also according to CNN, Algerian state media said 650 of them, including 100 foreign workers, had been freed. 

That leaves 32 foreign nationals and 23 Algerians unaccounted for.

UPDATE: 1/18/13 11:40 AM ET

Hostage takers offer trade

The group that is believed to be holding foreign and Algerian workers in a gas complex in Amenas hostage offered to trade two Americans they claim to be holding for terrorists held in US prisons, Fox News reported.

The group, which reportedly has links to an Al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa, sent a statement with the offer to a Mauritanian news site on Friday.

A senior US defense official told Fox News that two Americans had escaped unharmed from the hostage situation on Thursday. Five others who were in the complex reportedly avoided being captured.

The group, which goes by the name Al Mulathameen (though other reports have also referred to a group called the Battalion of Blood claiming responsibility) warned Algerians to "stay away from the installations of foreign companies as we will strike where it is least expected, according to Mauritanian news agency ANI, as cited by Reuters.

"While taking account of the sufferings of the Algerian people, we promise more operations against the regime in place," the group reportedly said.

Reuters noted that it was not possible to verify the report, but ANI has close links to the group which is led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, also known as Mr. Marlboro.

The details in the hostage situation are still unclear as the Algerian government has not been forthcoming with information.

GlobalPost's Paul Ames, reporting from Brussels, said:

Latest reports from Algerian media say about 60 foreigners are still being held, although over 570 Algerians and more than half a total of 132 foreign workers have been freed.

British Prime Minister David Cameron says a number of his compatriots are still at risk although that number is "now significantly reduced" from a previous estimate of "less than 30."

Cameron was among several leaders who expressed dissatisfaction that they were not informed in advance that the Algerian forces were going in to free the hostages. Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly called his Algerian counterpart Abdelmalek Sellal to "strongly urge" a halt to raid on the gas plant.

European governments had been urging restraint on the Algerians for fear an assault would result in bloodshed among the hostages, however Algerian officials said they had to act fast for fear the hostages' lives were in danger.

Algeria's armed forces are reputed to be among the best in the region. In the 1990s they achieved the rare success of defeating an Islamist insurgency, but at heavy cost. Both sides committed atrocities and casualties have been estimated up 150,000.

As a carry over from those days, the army has made clear it will take a tough line with terrorists and is prepared to act ruthlessly. The Algerian military has collaborated with US and other western forces since the 9/11 attacks on areas, including through NATO's "Mediterranean dialogue program" which it joined in 2000. Members of elite units will likely have had western training.

UPDATE: 1/18/13 11:15 AM ET

Mali: African troops arriving

GlobalPost senior correspondent Tristan McConnell reported from Nairobi:

"In Mali, the French-led military force has (finally) reclaimed the town of Konna, whose seizing by Islamist militants last week was the trigger for the French action. Otherwise progress is slow. African troops are arriving in Mali and aid agencies are worried about the humanitarian impact of it all."

Photos sent from the Twitter account of French journalist Sandrine Leclere were said to show France's Marine Infantry Tank Regiment, known by the French acronym RICM, heading to Mali:

 

 

 

 

UPDATE: 1/18/13 10:15 AM ET

UK's PM Cameron calls attack 'brutal and savage'

GlobalPost's senior correspondent Barry Neild reported from London:

The attacks in Algeria were condemned as "brutal and savage" by British Prime Minister David Cameron who also expressed dismay that he wasn't consulted over military operations to free the hostages.

Cameron told UK lawmakers on Friday that operations by Algerian forces were "still pursuing terrorists" at the Amenas gas complex but he was unable to say more because the operations were "ongoing." He said the number of Britons now at risk was fewer than 30.

Britain's Foreign Office said an aircraft carrying a "UK emergency deployment team" had landed in the south of Algeria, near Amenas, according to the BBC.

"We were not informed of this in advance. I was told by the Algerian prime minister while it was taking place," Cameron said in a statement to the UK's parliament.

"He said that the terrorists had tried to flee, that they judged there to be an immediate threat to the lives of the hostages and had felt obliged to respond."

Cameron said he was "disappointed" not to have been given advance warning about the operation. "Relations between Britain and Algeria are good, contact is good, but I think there's always a case for doing more," he said.

"We have had very good contact over these last few days. I won't hide, of course, we were disappointed not to be informed of the assault in advance and we do want to help in any way we can with technical help and assistance.

"I think we should show understanding the Algerian government faces a huge threat from Islamist terrorists and they were facing the situation where there was imminent threat to life and we should bear that in mind."

UPDATE: 1/18/13 9:20 AM ET

Mali's army takes Konna

Mali's military and one security source told Al Jazeera Friday that the army had reclaimed control of Konna, after rebels had taken the central town days earlier.

According to Al Jazeera, a military statement said:

"We have wrested total control of Konna after inflicting heavy losses on the enemy." 

UPDATE: 1/18/13 9:05 AM ET

Reuters reports 3 Egyptian militants are among the captors killed in Algeria

From Cairo, GlobalPost's Erin Cunningham pointed to a Reuters report that quoted an Algerian security source saying three Egyptians were killed by Algerian forces in yesterday’s botched raid on Islamists holding foreign oil workers hostage in the desert. 

Meanwhile, there were reports of Friday protests in Egypt against the French intervention in Mali. Extra security forces were assembling at the French embassy in Giza, according to Ahram Online.

Read GlobalPost's in-depth series on the rise of militant Islamism across Africa.

UPDATE: 1/18/13 8:55 AM ET

While Algeria takes the spotlight, Mali conflict escalates

Early reports on Twitter Friday morning indicate that the ground operation in Mali is intensifying. Late Thursday, it was reported that hundreds of French reinforcements and more than 100 Nigerian and Togolese soldiers had arrived to join the fight against Islamists in northern Mali.

UPDATE: 1/18/13 8:44 AM ET

Concern in Tokyo over fate of Japanese hostages

Justin McCurry, a correspondent for GlobalPost and the Guardian, told the Guardian:

"Concern is mounting in Japan about the fate of 10 workers thought to be among the hostages at the In Amenas gas field. There are unconfirmed reports that two Japanese nationals were among those who died.

"....There was irritation, bordering on anger, that the Algerian government had not notified Japan of the rescue attempt."

Read the rest of McCurry's report on the Guardian's live blog.

UPDATE: 1/18/13 8:39 AM ET

UK sending MI6, MI5 intel analysts to Algeria

The Guardian's defense and security correspondent, Nick Hopkins, reports that "the UK is flying a team of consular staff and intelligence analysts from MI6 and MI5 to Algiers to help secure the release of the Britons involved in the ongoing hostage crisis."

More from his report:

"Britain is believed to have advised the Algerians “to play it long”, in terms of dealing with the kidnappers, and to draw on all the expertise of those countries that can offer advice and intelligence.

"But events moved quickly out of control. 'We don’t have a full picture yet, so it is too early to learn the lessons. But on the face of it, this is not the way we would have handled it,' said one source."

UPDATE: 1/18/13 8:33 AM ET

22 foreign hostages still missing, according to reports

At least 22 foreign captives remain unaccounted for after Algerian troops mounted their unilateral rescue operation yesterday. Some are thought to remain inside the In Amenas gas plant, still in the hands of the surviving hostage-takers and surrounded by Algerian special forces. Others, it's feared, are dead.

Read the rest of this report.

UPDATE: 1/18/13 8:15 AM ET

Algeria hostage crisis 'not over,' could bring 'bad news,' says Britain

Algeria's hostage crisis at a gas plant deep in the Sahara desert has entered its third day with many questions still unanswered, including how many casualties were suffered in the chaos.

The Islamist militants who seized the BP plant in Amenas earlier this week claim to be holding 41 hostages, and BBC News reported Friday that "at least four hostages and a number of militants" have died.

The New York Times quoted the range of reported deaths from four to 35 people, adding that an Algerian official said the higher figure was "exaggerated."

Algeria's government said Thursday night that their raid on the captured plant was over, but Britain has said that the operations are still ongoing, the Associated Press reported, adding to the confusion surrounding the incident.

Read the rest of this report here.

UPDATE: 1/17/13 6:40 PM ET

This live blog has ended for the day, but check for breaking news developments here.

UPDATE: 1/17/13 6:10 PM ET

Officials say Algeria attack was planned before French intervention in Mali

European and US national security officials said on Thursday that the attack on the gas plant in Algeria was planned before France intervened in Mali. Reuters cited a European security official saying that the hostage takers were believed to be members of a breakaway faction of Al Qaeda's affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Western security sources contradicted the militants' claim that the attack was in revenge for France's intervention in Mali, saying it was more likely that the kidnappers had planned to ask for a ransom or the release of militant prisoners in exchange for the hostages.

A worker from the gas facility told Le Monde newspaper that one of the militants spoke in perfect English. The BBC reported that the worker said the militants knew the gas complex well and were from a variety of nationalities, including Egyptian, Tunisian, Algerian, and Malian or Nigerian.

UPDATE: 1/17/13 5:50 PM ET

Remember Operation Serval, in Mali?

The Algerian hostage crisis has overshadowed the French military intervention in Mali, called Operation Serval, which started last Friday. The intervention was meant to stop Islamist rebels from advancing further south in Mali.

On Thursday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that 600 more French troops would be joining the 1,400 already on the ground.

"This morning there are 1,400 French soldiers on Malian soil," he said, according to The New York Times. "There was combat yesterday, on the ground and from the air. There was more overnight and it is continuing at this moment."

Reuters cited a US official who said the United States has agreed to a French request for airlift support to help France move troops and equipment to Mali.

The French defense ministry's audiovisual agency released this footage of French operations in Mali:

UPDATE: 1/17/13 5:20 PM ET

Obama and Cameron speak about Algeria

The White House said US President Obama spoke with UK Prime Minister Cameron on Thursday afternoon about Algeria.

The White House released this readout of the call (via USA Today):

President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron spoke today as part of their regular consultations on global issues, including the ongoing hostage situation in Algeria. The leaders expressed support for the international community's efforts, led by France, to deny terrorists a safe haven in Mali.

Meanwhile, Cameron said the UK may have to prepare for more bad news.

"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," he said, according to 10 Downing Street.

The governments of Britain, France, Norway and Japan have expressed concern that they were given no prior notice about the Algerian military assault.

Ed Butler, Executive Chairman of Salamanca Risk Management, who served in the British Army for 24 years, told The Daily Telegraph:

The decision to use force, taken and implemented so fast, would almost certainly be handled in a very different way by a European power where such situations are thankfully rare. Political priorities militate against an assault - unless all alternative strategies have been exhausted. In contrast, Algeria's lengthy conflict against extremists has produced a more hard-nosed approach.

Algeria never allows foreign forces to operate within in its borders and their troops and planners face a very demanding mission - there are many hostages both local and expatriate, and the group behind the attack has been operating in the region for 20 years.

UPDATE: 1/17/13 4:55 PM ET

Oil prices rise on news of Algeria crisis

Reuters reported that the hostage crisis in Algeria, an OPEC country, played a factor in oil prices going up on Thursday.

Brent crude rose $1.42 to settle at $111.10 a barrel.

"The market certainly expects that most of the international oil companies will withdraw personnel from oil and gas fields, affecting production," Christopher Bellew, an analyst at oil brokerage Jefferies Bache, told Reuters.

UPDATE: 1/17/13 4:25 PM ET

Senior official: 10 Americans among hostages, 5 are now safe

ABC News' Martha Raddatz reported that a senior official told her that 10 Americans were among the hostages held in Algeria, and five of them were now safe. The official also reportedly said, "this is far from over."

Reuters cited an anonymous Algerian official, saying that 30 hostages had been killed, including 7 foreigners. None of the numbers have been confirmed by the separate governments whose nationals were captured. 

Meanwhile, the US Embassy in neighboring Mali, which is currently playing host to an Islamist rebellion that the French military is trying to quell, issued a message, informing US citizens in the city of Bamako of an "imposed curfew."

As of January 17, the U.S. Embassy in Bamako is implementing a curfew on U.S. Embassy official personnel. The curfew is in place because of increased police checkpoints and heightened tensions in Bamako. While this Embassy curfew does not extend to private U.S. citizens, the U.S. Embassy encourages U.S. citizens in Bamako to avoid traveling late at night and to be prudent in choosing where to go.

The U.S. Embassy reminds all U.S. citizens of the risk of terrorist activity in Mali, including in Bamako, and advises U.S. citizens to be cautious during this period of increased tension. Malian security forces have increased their security safeguards, including checkpoints and other controls on movement in Bamako and around the country.

UPDATE: 1/17/13 3:43 PM ET

5 other hostage rescues that ended in tragedy

Reports about possible fatalities in the hostage crisis at a BP gas field in Algeria serve as a grim reminder that hostage rescues often end in tragedy.

Here are five other recent hostage-takings that have had less-than-happy endings.

UPDATE: 1/17/13 3:35 PM ET

Results of hostage operation still shrouded in ambiguity

Media and representatives of foreign governments whose citizens were held hostage in Algeria are still without details on the number of people killed today and the total number of people captured.

Earlier, The New York Times said workers from the US, France, Britain, Japan and Norway were among the hostages, citing officials. Aside from Norway, which Reuters said confirmed 13 of its citizens being held, final numbers of hostages from each of those countries have not been confirmed.

What else do we know about the hostages? Learn more here.

UPDATE: 1/17/13 3:20 PM ET

Hostage rescue operation in Algeria is over, reports say

Media reports citing the Algerian state news agency say the hostage rescue operation in Algeria has ended. "Algerian state news agency APS quotes official saying military operation is over," the BBC wrote.

UPDATE: 1/17/13 2:36 PM ET

Escaped hostage tells Reuters captors 'only interested in the Christians and infidels'

A man who claims to have escaped his captors in Algeria after being kidnapped alongside scores of others in a militant-led attack in the country's south on Wednesday told Reuters today the militants are "only interested in the Christians and infidels."

The 53-year-old man, who identified himself only by his first name of Abdelkader, described the kidnappers as "terrorists" whom he said "told us at the very start that they would not hurt Muslims but were only interested in the Christians and infidels," reported Reuters.

"We will kill them, they said," the captors said, according to Abdelkader, adding he feared for the lives of the foreign captives.

Speaking to Reuters from his home in the southern town of Amenas, the man said he was "lucky" to escape but said he was "still choked, and stressed."

UPDATE: 1/17/13 2:27 PM ET

Extremist support of hostage operation reportedly circulating online

France 24's David Thompson caught this extremist image reportedly surfacing on militant websites praising alleged hostage-taking mastermind Mokhtar Belmokhtar (more on him here). 

Thompson tweets: 

Hat tip: The Guardian's liveblog

UPDATE: 1/17/13 2:22 PM ET

Algeria claims 600 hostages freed while rebels say 35 dead: USA Today

An Algerian news service is saying 600 hostages have been released after being kidnapped in the country's south on Wednesday, according to USA Today, even as militants claim the deaths of as many as 35 foreign captives. 

The Algerian agency, ANP, said the military launched a ground and air operation to save the hostages, reported USA Today. The account has not been independently verified. 

Meanwhile, the Associated Press cited Islamist terrorists as telling Mauritanian press today that 35 foreign hostages and 15 militants have been killed, said USA Today

In other words, confusion reigns. 

UPDATE: 1/17/13 2:15 PM ET

WATCH: White House wants 'clarity' on Algeria situation

White House spokesman Jay Carney at a press briefing today: 

UPDATE: 1/17/13 2:01 PM ET

Unconfirmed explosion reported at Algeria gas plant

Sky News is reporting that there has been a large explosion near the gas plant. The Sky report cites unnamed sources who allegedly heard the explosion. 

Journalist José Miguel Sardo, former deputy bureau chief of Euronews in Brussels, also reported an explosion via Twitter.

UPDATE: 1/17/13 1:55 PM ET

Former worker at BP gas field tells GlobalPost security there was tight

"I worked for the JV [BP/Statoil/SH gas plant] between 2009 and 2011 and stayed on that camp many times," a foreign national previously involved in seismic projects there told GlobalPost.

"There’s heavy security everywhere – ex-pats can’t go anywhere without a military escort. The JV camp is well protected (but not well enough it seems)," he added.

The former employee indicated that there was also a large military compound at the facility, with guard posts and an entry/exit control.

"The workers are mostly Algerian with some expertise provided by BP (British) and Statoil (Norwegians)," he wrote, adding that the gas field is "a big operation" with hundreds of people, mostly Algerian, on site at any given time.

UPDATE: 1/17/13 1:22 PM ET

Algeria says 'don't yet have numbers' on hostages as US expresses concern

From BBC

The White House today said the US has no concrete information about the fate of hostages taken captive in Algeria on Wednesday, some Americans believed among them, according to CNNWhite House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters

"Unfortunately, the best information that we have at this time, as I said, indicates that US citizens are among the hostages. But we do not have, at this point, more details to provide to you. We are certainly concerned about reports of loss of life and we are seeking clarity from the government of Algeria."

Also today, a US State Department official told CNN there are reports that the kidnappers placed explosive-laden vests on some of the hostages. The report could not be independently confirmed.

UPDATE: 1/17/13 1:08 PM ET

French president: Algeria crisis justifies Mali intervention

French President Francois Hollande today said events in Algeria support the country's ground offensive in neighboring Mali, according to Al Jazeera

Hollande made the remarks during a speech to business leaders in Paris today in which he noted the "dramatic" developments in Algeria, according to Reuters.

UPDATE: 1/17/13 1:06 PM ET

Japan critical of Algerian government's handling of hostage crisis

Japan's leaders are reacting fiercely to the hostage crisis in Algeria, demanding that the country's military stop trying to intervene.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ordered Algeria to halt its "rescue" mission, Agence France Presse reported, citing a government spokesperson as saying: "Japan has asked the Algerian government to put the highest priority on people's lives and expressed [Abe's] strong concern that such an operation is underway."

AFP also reports that Japan's vice foreign minister Minoru Kiuchi is in Algeria and has "urged the Algerian government to stop the operation immediately."

UPDATE: 1/17/13 12:57 PM ET

France hints at EU military support for Mali offensive

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius today emerged from EU talks on Mali saying some European countries were considering lending France a hand in its fight against Islamist militants in the north African country, according to Al Jazeera

Fabius said there might be "an offer of troops," reported Agence-France Press, but he was quick to add that Paris "won't force anyone," said Al Jazeera, going on to quote him saying: 

All the European countries, I repeat, all the European countries, have shown their solidarity both with Mali and with the French undertaking. And all my colleagues, without a single exception, underlined that they completely supported the French action and they thanked France for acting and for acting so quickly. Because, as one person said, without the French action there would be no Mali any more.

Meanwhile, at a different EU briefing also today, the bloc's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said various European countries "did not rule in or rule out" helping France in Mali, adding that includes the possibility of direct "military support," said AFP

"We were united in welcoming the quick response of France" last week, Ashton added, reported AFP.

UPDATE: 1/17/13 12:13 PM ET

LATEST: Number of hostages killed in Algeria remains unclear

Rebels are claiming at least 34 hostages and 15 of their captors have been killed in Algeria after militants stormed an oil facility in the country's south, according to Mauritania’s ANI news agency, which Eurasia says "has close ties to the militant group" believed responsible for the Wednesday attack that took an unknown number captive.

The figures have not been verified. Reuters noted that the ANI news agency has been in "constant contact" with the kidnappers; earlier today, however, Reuters cited "Algerian sources" as saying only six hostages were killed. 

Haaretz cautions that while rebels put the death toll at 34 hostages and 15 captors, other Algerian news outlets have claimed a far lower number. "Either way, the true nature of the situation on the ground in Algeria is still unclear," Haaretz writes. 

Meanwhile, Radio France International is reporting that the Algerian army bombarded a column of kidnappers who tried to flee with their hostages. "The only thing we are sure of is that the Algerians broke off negotiations with the kidnappers," Radio France's correspondent said. 

UPDATE: 1/17/13 11:53 AM ET

Governments take action in Algeria as US drone surveys hostage site

An unarmed Predator drone reportedly flew over the site of a BP oil facility in southern Algeria that was assaulted by militants on Wednesday, an attack that took scores of people captive, among them US and EU citizens. CNN cited a US official as saying the drone visit was intended to gather intelligence. CBS News has more: 

The move suggests states are beginning to take independent action on the hostage crisis, with Britain criticizing the Algerian authorities for not giving prior notice in a rescue operation earlier today, according to Reuters.

"The Algerian Prime Minister explained that the situation was very fast-moving and that in the government's judgment they needed to act immediately," Reuters cited British Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman as saying today, adding: "The Algerians are aware that we would have preferred to have been consulted in advance."

UPDATE: 1/17/13 11:31 AM ET

From Brussels: growing anxiety over fate of hostages

Algeria's armed forces might be trying to end the hostage situation--but that doesn't mean the hostages' lives will be saved.

GlobalPost's Brussels correspondent Paul Ames has heard some reports claiming that Algerian aircraft are bombarding the the plant, "with casualties among the hostages."

Algeria's military has long experience dealing with Islamist insurgency, Ames notes, and has responded "ruthlessly" in the past.

But there continue to be conflicting reports about the situation. Ames has also heard reports indicating that the Islamists have set up explosives around the plant, with threats to blow it up if there is a rescue attempt. 

UPDATE: 1/17/13 11:09 AM ET

Captive reportedly freed in Algeria as BP announces national staff pull-out

Algeria hostage Stephen McFaul of Belfast has reportedly been freed after being taken captive alongside dozens of others in a militant-led attack on a BP oil facility in the country's south on Wednesday, according to BBC News, while the British oil giant today announced it is pulling all of its staff out of the country. 

Thirty-six-year-old McFaul, who was in Algeria on an Irish passport, told his family today he was free and "safe and well," according to the Republic's Department of Foreign Affairs, said the Belfast Telegraph

The Belfast MP, Paul Maskey, quickly responded on Twitter: 

Meanwhile, BP announced it is withdrawing all staff from Algeria in a rare official statement that also detailed ongoing recovery efforts: 

“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. 

UPDATE: 1/17/13 10:39 AM ET

Former Algeria army officer to NYT: 'there will be more attacks'

A former Algerian army officer told The New York Times today the oil facility attack in the country's south on Wednesday, in which as many as 40 people are believed to have been kidnapped by militants, could be a portent for further violence. Americans are among those reported captured, and militants have claimed it as a revenge attack against the French ground invasion in neighboring Mali. 

“The setting in motion of a military machine in north Mali was going to have definite repercussions in Algeria,” Mohamed Chafik Mesbah, who is also a political scientist, told NYT today, adding: “There are going to be much worse consequences. There will be more attacks.” 

Along those lines, FOX News' congressional correspondent Chad Pergram just tweeted

Also today, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described Wednesday's assault in Algeria as a terrorist attack, according to a NYT report that did not directly quote him using the term.

“I want to assure the American people that the United States will take all necessary and proper steps that are required to deal with this situation,” Panetta said, reported NYT

UPDATE: 1/17/13 10:01 AM ET

Algeria to CNN: there is 'ongoing operation' to help hostages

As for reports of a dramatic helicopter rescue attempt -- pure "fantasy," authorities told CNN. Watch it here: 

UPDATE: 1/17/13 9:48 AM ET

Lead hostage-taker may be among the dead: reports

Reports are flying that a rebel leader allegedly responsible for orchestrating Wednesday's kidnapping an assault on an oil field in southern Algeria has been killed.

The Telegraph is citing a French report from Lebanon's Al Akhbar claiming militant Abu Bara has been shot, news reportedly supported by a "masked spokesman" of the Witnesses in Blood insurgent group that earlier took responsibility for the oil facility attack.

Al Jazeera, meanwhile, is reporting the "lead hostage-taker is also among the dead." 

Meanwhile, the fate of the alleged mastermind of the attack, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is still unknown. You can read all about him here

UPDATE: 1/17/13 9:33 AM ET

Reuters reporting six captives, eight rebels killed in Algeria

Reuters has new reports on escapes and deaths in Algeria, but the figures remain unconfirmed. Citing an unnamed source, Reuters reports that six hostages and eight of their captors were killed by an Algerian military strike on a vehicle being used by the kidnappers.

Reuters also says that 180 Algerian citizens have escaped the area -- if you're a little confused about where all this is happening, see the map below. 

UPDATE: 1/17/13 9:22 AM ET

Map of the BP oil facility captured by militants in Algeria


View Larger Map

UPDATE: 1/17/13 8:46 AM ET

More than 40 people reported dead after strikes by Algerian troops

ABC news is citing reports that as many as 40 people were killed in the Algeria hostage situation Thursday.

ABC said that as many as 34 hostages and 14 hostage-takers were reportedly killed, after Algerian forces launched an air strike on a BP facility that has been held by radical Islamists since Wednesday.

Reuters reiterated that 34 had died, according to a Mauritanian news agency, but added that it was not possible to verify the report at this time.

Earlier, around 25 foreign hostages reportedly escaped from the In Amenas gas field in southeast Algeria, including two Japanese, where the gunmen have been holding dozens of people captive since Wednesday.

UPDATE: 1/17/13 8:41 AM ET

Hostages escape Algeria; breaking reports say dozens may have been killed

Around 25 foreign hostages have reportedly escaped from the In Amenas gas field in southeast Algeria, including two Japanese, where Islamist gunmen have been holding dozens of people captive since Wednesday.

Meanwhile Algerian troops have the complex surrounded and have begun firing on it from helicopters, according to a report from Mauritania's ANI news agency cited by Reuters.

Breaking reports on Twitter suggest that many hostages may have been killed. Check back for updates.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the adminstration is taking the hostage situation very seriously:

 

UPDATE: 1/16/13 6:00 PM ET

This live blog has ended for the day, but check in with breaking news developments here

UPDATE: 1/16/13 5:57 PM ET

Algeria hostage-takers demand France end Mali 'crusade'

An Islamist group that claims to have taken dozens of people captive in an attack on an oil field in southern Algeria today said the move was in revenge for French military action in neighboring Mali, according to Agence-France Press.

Several people are also believed to have been killed in the assault and as many as 40 kidnapped, but exact figures remain unclear. 

A militant group that described itself as the "Battalion of Blood" issued a statement critical of what it called "the crusade being waged by French forces in Mali," said AFP.

"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," the group's statement said, reported Reuters.

A number of foreigners, including possibly some US citizens, are believed to be among those held. Read more on the attack in Algeria here

UPDATE: 1/16/13 5:42 PM ET

Former US Nigeria ambassador John Campbell on Mali intervention

GlobalPost talked to John Campbell, the former ambassador to Nigeria (2004-2007) and a Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, about France’s intervention in Mali.

Asked about President Francois Hollande’s reason for intervening in Mali, Campbell said the French president was responding to an appeal from the interim president of Mali.

Campbell did note that the intervention in Mali is “flatly contradictory” to the anti-war platform that Hollande ran on. USA Today said that nearly two-thirds of French people polled by the French Institute of Public Opinion supported the intervention.

However, if the intervention were to drag on, Campbell said Hollande might lose some of that support. “Democracies have very little tolerance for wars that drag on,” he said. “How much political support there would be in France if the French intervention in Mali became prolonged or protracted, I don’t know. I doubt it would be very much.”

“Some French commentators have said that the French intervention was to prevent the establishment of additional Islamist training grounds in a territory which is not very far from France.”

The French community in Bamako, which the French troops will ostensibly protect, is a “mixture of businessmen, aid workers, ex-patriots,” he said. The population also includes Malians who have gained French citizenship.

Campbell also said that the French intervention forestalls a plan to put together a multi-national African force which would have intervened in Mali in August or September 2013, with authorization from the United Nations Security Council.

The African multi-national force is now rushing to deploy a 3,300-strong force to aid the French troops on the ground.

UPDATE: 1/16/13 4:51 PM ET

VIDEO: On the ground in Mali with Doctors Without Borders

From Al Jazeera

UPDATE: 1/16/13 4:39 PM ET

Mali asked for US military help last week, says State Department official

It appears that Mali earlier asked America to help it battle insurgents there, according to an unnamed State Department official, said The Washington Post, comments that come on the sixth day of an anti-militant offensive being led by the French. 

“The Malian government made a specific request of the United States, as they did the French, several days ago for assistance in combatting the threat posed by the rebels,” the official said, according to the Post's report

But US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said two days ago that Mali's request "went to France."

"It didn’t come to a larger international contingent,” she said, according to the Post. “And obviously, as allies and as long-term partners in these kinds of efforts, we are looking at what the French might need in terms of support," she added on Monday.  

Today's comments from the State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, did not go into detail. The exact nature of the request remains obscure, said the Post, especially given America's legal restructions when it comes to Mali -- according to Nuland, the US is barred from providing the ruling Mali government with direct military aid. 

The seeming contradiction is strange, though. 

UPDATE: 1/16/13 4:17 PM ET

Aid efforts limited by military offensive in Mali: Official

Catholic aid organization Caritas' director in Mali, Gaston Goro, today said providing humanitarian assistance to Malians caught in the conflict is at the moment "impossible due to the security conditions," with the military “blocking the roads and forcing caution," according to the Missionary International Service News Agency (MISNA). Thousands of people are reportedly fleeing to neighboring Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. 

Goro's comments come amid an urgent appeal for international help from Bamako's Roman Catholic Archbishop, Monsignor Jean Zerbo:

“The need of food, drinking water, hygiene kits, anti-malaria drugs and basic necessities will increase over the next weeks, also because we are in the cold and wet season, which significantly complicates humanitarian assistance. We are also at war and don’t know how long it will last."

But Zerbo said ousting militant forces from the country would be a "positive outcome" for Mali, blaming extremists for having "unfortunately altered African humanism and the culture of the Malian people of tolerance, dialogue and serene inter-faith dialogue." However, he also said true peace will only be found by "working on educating consciousness to eradicate the seeds planted by religious fundamentalism and individuals that orchestrate Islam," according to MISNA.

UPDATE: 1/16/13 3:55 PM ET

2,000 regional troops heading to Mali: Report

Agence-France Press is reporting that roughly 2,000 West African troops are set to arrive in Mali's Bamako no later than January 26, according to Al Jazeera.

The force is part of AFISMA (African-led International Support Mission for Mali) and represents the majority of the 3,300 soldiers West African military officials agreed to send in support of the ongoing anti-militant offensive there, said Al Jazeera

"Urgency necessitates that everything is speeded up so that 2,000 men from AFISMA arrive in Bamako before January 26," AFP cited internal military documents as saying, reported Al Jazeera. The report could not be immediately independently confirmed. 

UPDATE: 1/16/13 3:36 PM ET

Militant violence reported in neighboring Algeria

As if there isn't enough trouble brewing in North Africa, Mali's neighbor to the north, Algeria, was attacked by militants today. You can read all about it on GlobalPost here. Extremists are believed to have kidnapped an unknown number of oil workers after killing a French security guard in an assault on a BP oil facility in the country's south. 

UPDATE: 1/16/13 3:25 PM ET

Europe considers its options in Mali as France offensive continues 

Several European countries are weighing their options in the Mali conflict, as France deployed 800 troops on the ground in its former colony, with more on the way for a total force of 2,500. 

Foreign ministers are planning a meeting Thursday to dialogue about the crisis, though experts say it is unlikely they will join France in combat, Voice of America reports.

"We are directly impacted by the situation there. Because terrorist groups based in northern Mali use this territory that they control for all kinds of traffic, for drugs and arms smuggling," European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton said Tuesday. 

"They've taken many hostages, many of them originated from European member states. So under no circumstances can we be indifferent to the situation," she added. 

The interim President of Mali Dioncounda Traore was in Europe Tuesday night to meet with Ashton about the conflict, Newstalk reported.

UPDATE: 1/16/13 3:00 PM ET

The Mali conflict, mapped out 

French newspaper Le Monde has been tracking the Mali conflict, including cities controlled by French and Islamist forces and the sites of known French bombings, on an interactive map on their website. 

Check the full map out here

UPDATE: 1/16/13 2:30 PM ET

Human Rights Watch: Get child soldiers out of it 

As the fighting escalates in Mali, Human Rights Watch has urged Islamist fighters to release those in their ranks who are under 18, and to stop recruiting children for their battle. 

“These Islamist groups have no business recruiting children into their ranks, much less putting them on the front line,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These groups seem to be willfully putting scores of children directly in harm’s way. Before the military campaign goes any further, the Islamists should release these children back to their families.”

A leader in Mali's armed forces who wished to remain anonymous told Agence France Presse Wednesday that the Islamist forces are "using the population as a shield, which is complicating matters for us. And they have only child soldiers." 

Witnesses have reported seeing child soldiers in Gao, headed to reinforce militants struggling to hold on to the central town of Konna, as well as working checkpoints in the towns of Boré, Douentza, and Gao, HRW reported.

UPDATE: 1/16/13 1:08 PM ET

Is today's hostage-taking attack in Algeria revenge for Mali?

Reports are suggesting that a Wednesday attack by Islamist militants on a British Petroleum natural gas field in southern Algeria may be tied to France's military operation, known as Serval, in Mali.

In Algeria, militants kidnapped BP oil workers — AFP said the group claimed to be holding 41 hostages — and killed a security guard and a French national, according to the Associated Press, citing an Algerian state news agency.

BP said in a statement the site was “attacked and occupied by a group of unidentified armed people,” and personnel were being “held by the occupiers.”

AFP wrote from Algiers that "Norwegians, French, Americans, Britons and Japanese were among those kidnapped near the In Amenas gas field, close to the Libyan border," according to a report by APS news agency.

Algerian nationals taken hostage today have since been released, according to local officials via APS, AFP wrote.

Learn more about Islamists in Africa from GlobalPost's in-depth series.

UPDATE: 1/16/13 12:48 PM ET

The ICC opens war crimes investigation in Mali

The International Criminal Court has opened a war crimes investigation into the situation in Mali, Agence France-Presse reported.

According to AFP, the court's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said in a statement:

"Different armed groups have caused havoc and human suffering through a range of alleged acts of extreme violence.

"I have determined that some of these deeds of brutality and destruction may constitute war crimes."

Islamist rebels have controlled the northern half of Mali since early last year. As GlobalPost wrote in September:

"As local militant groups sign on to Al Qaeda's ideology in Somalia, Nigeria, Mali and beyond — and they start coordinating — Africa is becoming the terror group's newest playground."

Learn more about Al Qaeda in Africa from GlobalPost's in-depth series.

UPDATE: 1/16/13 12:00 PM ET

Islamists v. Musicians

While most of the global coverage of Mali is focusing on military matters, the Guardian has offered up a smart post on another key aspect of the fighting: its impact on culture.

Specifically, musicians from Mali who have been driven underground by the conflict.

As the Guardian points out, Islamist rebel groups have banned music in about two-thirds of the large desert nation.

This is a "shocking" development, Guardian world music critic Robin Denselow notes, as music is a central part of identity across the country and many Malian musicans are household names in Europe and elsewhere.

Here's how Manny Ansar, the director of Mali's Festival in the Desert, explained it to Denselow:

"Music is important as a daily event. It's not just a business, for it's through our music that we know history and our own identity. Our elders gave us lessons through music. It's through music that we declare love and get married – and we criticise and make comments on the people around us."

Read the full post here, which also features (non-embeddable) videos to some great Malian music.

UPDATE: 1/16/13 11:35 AM ET

So what do the French really think of Mali intervention?

France has plenty of problems, including rising unemployment and the lingering risks of the euro crisis. So does it need another headache like Mali?

French intellectual Dominique Moisi tackled that question in a brainy post today on Project Syndicate.

In it, Moisi says the French are behind President Hollande. For now. But there are plenty of risks.

Here's the money quote:

While France is not alone – manifestations of support have come from its Western and African partners, as well as from the Middle East – it will bear the primary responsibility and the risks. For Islamic fundamentalists, France is now the “Great Satan.”

Read the full post here.

UPDATE: 1/16/13 11:26 AM ET

Mali....that's in Africa, right?

We know — not everyone can keep their eyes on events the world over, every day. The Washington Post's Max Fisher penned a handy primer for those trying to make basic sense of the Mali conflict, approachably titled: "9 questions about Mali you were too embarrassed to ask."

Among the questions Fisher poses: "So who cares about all this? Literally, tell me, who are the people who care and why."

The answer? "Well, France cares.... Neighboring African countries care.... Most of all, the people of Mali care."

UPDATE: 1/16/13 11:11 AM ET

The conflict could last months

From Nairobi, GlobalPost senior correspondent Tristan McConnell writes that Hollande's gamble in Mali could land France in a prolonged quagmire:

"As French special forces fight Mali’s Islamist rebels in the streets of Diabaly, President Francois Hollande’s hopes for a quick win are fading.

The reality of a formidable enemy and unprepared allies make it likely that France will be involved in a conflict for months to come."

Read the rest of his report here.

UPDATE: 1/16/13 10:40 AM ET

Reuters: Mali Islamists appear united against common enemy

French forces in Mali aren't up against a fragile foe.

Reuters writes that "a loose alliance of rebels from al Qaeda's North African wing and local groups has been united by the threat of foreign intervention." Read their full report.

UPDATE: 1/16/13 9:39 AM ET

Reports: French infantry clash with Islamists in Diabaly

Fighting was reported Wednesday between French ground forces and militant Islamists in Diabaly, which militants took on Monday.

Clashes there would represent the first contact between French infantry and Islamists, "although French special forces have been in play for a while already," GlobalPost correspondent Tristan McConnell wrote from Nairobi.

French ground troops began their march into northern Mali this morning. French airstrikes, meanwhile, have bombarded targets in central and northern Mali in recent days, Al Jazeera reported.

 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/africa/130116/french-forces-mali-serval-clash-militants-islamists-live-blog-updates-video