Mokhtar Belmokhtar is pictured in a screen capture from an undated video distributed by the Belmokhtar Brigade

Algerian forces launch operation to break desert siege

by Lamine Chikhi, Reuters  |  published on January 18, 2013

Twenty-five foreign hostages escaped and six were killed on Thursday when Algerian forces launched an operation to free them at a remote desert gas plant, Algerian sources said, as one of the biggest international hostage crises in decades unfolded.

Three other hostages were later freed by the army, a local source told Reuters, as the military operation continued after dark. The reported loss of hostages’ lives in the fast-moving events raised a chorus of concern from Western leaders.

The standoff began when gunmen calling themselves the Battalion of Blood stormed the gas facility on Wednesday morning. They said they were holding 41 foreigners and demanded a halt to a French military operation against fellow al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants in neighboring Mali.

The raid increased fears that jihadist militants could launch further attacks in Algeria, a vast desert country with large oil and gas reserves that is only just recovering from a protracted conflict with Islamist rebels during the 1990s which cost an estimated 200,000 lives.

A local source told Reuters six foreign hostages were killed along with eight captors when the Algerian military fired on a vehicle being used by the gunmen.

He said 40 Algerians and three foreigners were freed by the army as it continued its operation into Thursday evening. An Algerian security source said earlier 25 foreign hostages had escaped.

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