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(ABC News)--The Algerian government has reportedly mounted a military operation to
rescue dozens of hostages, including Americans, being held by an al
Qaeda-affiliated group at a natural gas plant in Algeria, and Britain's
prime minister warns that Westerners should prepare for the possibility
of bad news.
Reports that as many as 35 hostages and 15 Islamist militants at the
facility in In Amenas have been killed during a helicopter raid have not
been confirmed. According to an unconfirmed report by an African news
outlet, the militants say seven hostages survived the attack, including
two Americans, one Briton, three Belgians and a Japanese national.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said that Algerian forces had attacked the compound, and that the situation "was ongoing."
"We face a very bad situation at this GP gas compound in Algeria," said
Cameron. "A number of British citizens have been taken hostage. Already
we know of one who has died. ... I think we should be prepared for the
possibility for further bad news, very difficult news in this extremely
An unarmed U.S. Predator drone is now above In Amenas and is conducting surveillance.
In a statement, BP, a joint owner of the facility, said it had been told
by both the British and Algerian governments that "the Algerian Army is
attempting to take control of the In Amenas site."
"Sadly, there have been some reports of casualties but we are still
lacking any confirmed or reliable information," said the statement.
"There are also reports of hostages being released or escaping."
Algerian troops had surrounded the compound in the Sahara desert, where
hostages from the U.S., Algeria, Norway, Japan, France and other
countries are being held by terrorists who claim to be part of Al Qaeda
and are led by a one-eyed smuggler known as Mr. Marlboro.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told ABC News that as many as 100
hostages are being held, and that there may be seven or eight Americans
among them. "Right now, we just really don't know how many are being
held," said Panetta, who said information about the situation, including
the total number of hostages and where they are being held, is "pretty
sketchy." The kidnappers have released a statement saying there are
"more than 40 crusaders" held "including 7 Americans."
U.S. officials had previously confirmed to ABC News that there were at
least three Americans held hostage at the natural gas facility jointly
owned by BP, the Algerian national oil company and a Norwegian firm at
In Amenas, Algeria.
"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," said Panetta. "I don't think there's any question that [this
was]a terrorist act and that the terrorists have affiliation with al
Qaeda." He said the precise motivation of the kidnappers was unknown.
"They are terrorists, and they will do terrorist acts."
The terror strike came without warning Wednesday morning when an
estimated 20 gunmen first attacked a bus carrying workers escorted by
two cars carrying security teams.
At least one worker was killed. The terrorists moved on to the
residential compound where they are now holed up with the American and
other western hostages, including Norwegian, French, British, and
There is growing concern this morning about the fate of the hostages,
and intelligence officials say the situation is tense. Without the
element of surprise, they say, a raid to free them will be very
"They are expecting an attack and therefore, it's going to be very, very
difficult for Algerian special forces to sneak in without being seen,"
said Richard Clarke, a former White House counter terrorism advisor and
now an ABC News consultant.
Mr. Marlboro: Kidnapper, Smuggler
Intelligence officials believe the attack was masterminded by Mokhtar
Belmokhtar, a rogue al Qaeda leader who also runs an African organized
crime network that reportedly has made tens of millions of dollars in
ransom from kidnappings and smuggling. He is known as Mr. Marlboro
because of his success smuggling diamonds, drugs and cigarettes.
Belmokhtar fought in Afghanistan alongside the mujahideen against the
Soviets in the 1990s, and lost an eye. He was formerly associated with
al Qaeda's North African affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
(AQIM), and was said to be a liaison with al Qaeda's international
leadership. Belmokhtar split with AQIM late last year over what other
Islamist militants considered his preference for lucre over jihad. He
remains affiliated with al Qaeda, however, heading a breakaway group
that calls itself the "Signers with Blood Brigade" or the "Veiled
According to a Canadian diplomat who was held hostage by Belmokhtar, Mr. Marlboro is "very, very cold, very businesslike."
Robert Fowler was a UN diplomat in Africa when he was kidnapped and held hostage by Belmokhtar for four months in 2009.
"I was afraid for my life all the time," recalled Fowler, "when I woke
up in the morning and when I went to sleep at night. He's a very serious
player. " Fowler wrote a book about his ordeal called "A Season in Hell."
Intelligence officials say the situation would be much easier if all the terrorists wanted was money.
But Belmokhtar's group says it will not release the hostages in Algeria
until France stops its military action against the al Qaeda regime that
has taken control of the northern sector of the neighboring country of
"We bear the Algerian and French government and the countries of the
hostages' full responsibility in not speeding up the implementation of
our demands [to stop] the aggressive assault on our people in Mali,"
said the group in its latest statement.
France says it will not negotiate with terrorists.