Crisis Watch: Algeria

Tom Bailey 24 January 2013

At 5am on January 16, Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militants attacked two buses carrying workers from the Tigantourine gas plant in Eastern Algeria. While police escort promptly repelled the attack, one Algerian and one Briton were killed in the firefight. The militants then moved on to the main gas facility, taking its workers hostage. Over 700 Algerian workers were taken hostage, as were the 132 foreign workers from countries, including Britain, Japan, Norway, America and Columbia.

The Algerian army surrounded the complex, pursuing a policy of non-negotiation before attacking at 2pm on January 17. Militants attempted to move the hostages in five jeeps, but only one jeep survived and unverified claims say that 35 hostages and 15 militants were killed by helicopter fire. Since then there has been a process of clearing the plant, searching for surviving hostages, and accounting for the dead. In total 38 foreigners have been killed in the tense hostage crisis, including three Britons. Five hostages remain unaccounted for, and many of the dead have yet to be identified. At the same time the Algerian army operation successfully saw 685 Algerians and 100 foreigners to safety and 29 militants were killed and 3 taken prisoner.

The militants involved in the episode, led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar – a notorious insurgent who fell out with Al-Qaeda in North Africa – are known under various names including Blood Battalion and the Khaled Abu al-Abbas. The gas-plant hostage situation appeared to be a reaction to French intervention in Mali and the Algerian decision to allow the French to use national airspace. However the Algerian government rejected the claim, saying the operation had been planned for two months.

Algeria has a history of trouble with Islamic militants, and the crisis has highlighted the alarming lack of control wielded by the government over its borders and its vulnerability to militant gangs. The geopolitical impact of the crisis, as war develops in the North African theatre, will be seen over the weeks, particularly in the guise of potential intervention strategies adopted by non-African powers.

Tom Bailey