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Mali’s conflict spilled across its borders Wednesday, as Islamist militants stormed a gas facility in Algeria, reportedly taking as many as 41 foreign hostages, killing two people and wounding others.
A group calling itself Katibat Moulathamine, or the “Masked Brigade,” claimed responsibility and said the hostage-taking was in retaliation for France’s intervention in Mali, the Associated Press reported. Algeria allowed France to use its airspace to send warplanes to neighbouring Mali.
The organization — which claims it abducted 41 hostages, although other estimates put the number at about 20 or 30 — is a faction connected to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), now in control of Mali’s north alongside other rebel factions.
By Wednesday night, Algerian troops had surrounded the Ain Amenas gas field, located close to Libya’s border, according to the Associated Press. The gas field is jointly owned by BP, Norwegian oil firm Statoil and Algerian state company Sonatrach.
Fearing backlash to France’s offensive in Mali — which came months ahead of a planned attack by African forces, in response to AQIM’s advance on the capital and strategic military towns in the centre of the country — France has boosted security at its airports and train stations in the past week and cautioned French citizens and institutions abroad to be on high alert.
“They want to get back at the French desperately and they have a history of carrying out a tit-for-tat response when it comes to French intervention,” said Bruce Whitehouse, an anthropology professor at Lehigh University, and a Fulbright scholar who has lived in Mali.
“They clearly want to portray what they’re doing as a direct and balanced response to what’s being directed against them,” he said.
“It will bring a lot more pressure from the United States and European governments to get involved,” said Whitehouse. “(It) might be a good thing from Mali’s point of view. Algeria has what’s reckoned to be the most capable military there and they have experience and they know the terrain.”
“By all indications, this is a terrorist act . . . It is a very serious matter when Americans are taken hostage along with others,” Panetta told reporters in Rome, according to a transcript of the news conference. “(I) want to assure the American people that the United States will take all the necessary and proper steps that are required to deal with this situation.”
An AQIM spokesperson told Voice of America that if the U.S. helps France in Mali, it will “face the consequences.”
AQIM is skilled in kidnappings and ransoms for Western hostages, reportedly in the tens of millions of dollars, has kept the organization well-funded. Seven French nationals were already being held hostage before Friday’s offensive.