January 22, 2013 | Quote
Air Force Evacuates Some Hostages Freed From Algeria Oil Field Chaos
A U.S. Air Force C-130 medical transport plane landed in Algeria on Friday morning to evacuate some of the hostages freed from their terrorist captors during a chaotic Algerian military operation. But confusing reports indicate the chaos at the In Amenas oil field continues into its third day.
CNN first reported that the heavy cargo plane landed in Algeria to evacuate “10-20 hostages” freed after the Algerian military launched a helicopter-borne assault on terrorists who captured the oil field on Wednesday. The plane, outfitted to carry medical equipment and treat wounded passengers, has been “on the ground since earlier this morning,” Benjamin Benson, a spokesman for the U.S. Africa Command, told Danger Room. Its destination has yet to be determined.
There may still be hostages at In Amenas or otherwise in the custody of the group that seized the oil field. “I don’t know if it’s everybody” on board the C-130, Benson said. While the ex-hostages are of “various nationalities,” it’s unclear if Americans are among them.
“I don’t know the conditions, and if there are any deceased people, I don’t know,” Benson said, describing the medical evacuation as occurring “in coordination with Algeria.”
At least one American, Frederick Buttaccio of Texas, has been found dead at the oil field.
About 30 people were believed to be taken hostage by a terror group described as aligned with al-Qaida, first described as a response to France’s military strike on Islamic extremists in nearby northern Mali. But the ability of the insurgents to surprise, seize and hold an oil field where over 600 people worked suggests to some, like Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who chairs the House intelligence committee, that the operation was planned long in advance.
The Algerians launched a counterstrike on the oil field on Thursday that appears not to have resolved the situation. While details about the strike are unclear, the Algerian government used helicopter strikes and commandos to free the hostages, but at least six of them were killed in an effort that the Associated Press describes as “bloody chaos.” An unarmed U.S. surveillance drone was dispatched to the scene.
Algeria is apparently sensitive to the perception that it requires the help of the United States to free the oil field. A U.S. official said late Thursday afternoon that Algeria did not alert Washington in advance of the counterstrike, and the administration had urged the Algerian government to prioritize the safety of the hostages.
Pentagon officials are declining all comment, an indication that the hostage crisis continues.
The AP cited Mauritanian media as indicating the extremist group wishes to trade two U.S. hostages still in its custody for the freedom of “jailed terror figures.” Reuters reports that those figures aren’t in Algerian custody, but U.S. jails, and they’re major luminaries in the Islamic-extremist world: “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdul Rahman and Aafia Siddiqui, sentenced in 2010 for conspiracy to murder Americans in Afghanistan. (Terrorist expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross calls it a “boilerplate demand” indicating the group doesn’t intend to negotiate.) Algerian state media reports that about 60 foreign hostages remain unaccounted for. Algerian state media reported later in the morning that “nearly 100” of the 132 non-Algerians believed to have been kidnapped are now free.
In a statement released Friday, BP, one of the oil companies that worked on the oil field, indicated that some of its personnel may still be in captivity.
“There is a small number of BP employees at In Amenas whose current location and situation remain uncertain,” the company stated. “BP is working with the Algerian government and authorities to confirm their status. We do not intend to publicly comment on details of the number, nationalities or identities of these staff.”
We’ll update this post as we acquire more information.
Update, 10 a.m., January 19: After a final assault early on Saturday by Algerian forces, the oil field is out of the kidnappers’ hands, Reuters reports. Seven hostages are reported dead. Algeria’s state-owned oil and gas company said the terrorist group had “booby-trapped the gas complex with explosives.”
In a bitter irony, Human Rights Watch warns that the aftermath of the NATO-assisted Libyan revolution appears to be an accelerant of the rise of extremism in Mali and Algeria. The specific concern is that the U.S. focused too much (!) on securing loose stocks of surface-to-air missiles and insufficiently on locking down the “ordinary high-caliber weapons” that went missing from Moammar Gadhafi’s weapons stocks. Something the group might also have added: many accounts of the seizure of In Amenas have highlighted ungoverned areas in western Libya as a new locale for terrorist training camps.
Another Update, 5:30 p.m., January 21: The State Department has confirmed the deaths of two other U.S. citizens in the hostage crisis, Victor Lynn Lovelady and Gordon Lee Rowan, in addition to Frederick Buttaccio. Seven other U.S. citizens lived through the assault. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says in a statement that the department will have no additional comment. “We will continue to work closely with the Government of Algeria to gain a fuller understanding of the terrorist attack of last week,” Nuland’s statement reads, “and how we can work together moving forward to combat such threats in the future.”