Algeria government says had to storm plant, action continues
(Reuters) - Algeria's government spokesman confirmed some hostages were killed in a continuing military operation at a desert gas plant on Thursday but said troops had been forced to act to free them due to the "diehard" attitude of their captors.
In the first official comments by the government on the day's events, Communication Minister Mohamed Said was quoted as telling state news agency APS that many militants had been killed and that efforts to free foreign hostages were going on.
He acknowledged there had been "several deaths and injuries" among the hostages, but insisted Algeria, which fought a bloody war against Islamists through the 1990s, would not negotiate.
"We say that in the face of terrorism, yesterday as today as tomorrow, there will be no negotiation, no blackmail, no respite in the struggle against terrorism," APS quoted Said as saying.
Adding that Algerian forces had done all they could to ensure the hostages' survival and bring the siege to a successful conclusion, he blamed "the diehard attitude of the terrorists" for forcing the military to launch its operation.
Western leaders whose citizens are among the hostages, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, said they were told of the assault only after it started. He told Britons to prepare for "bad news" and an aide said Cameron would have preferred to have been consulted before the raid began.
Said said the militants' goals had been to destabilize Algeria and draw it in to the civil war in Mali.
The guerrillas had demanded that France stop its offensive against Mali's Islamist rebels and that Algerian withdraw its cooperation with the French operation.
(Reporting by Lamine Chikhi; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)
Profile: Mokhtar Belmokhtar
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, head of the al-Qaeda brigade that claims to have seized the Western hostages in Algeria yesterday, is a jihadist straight out of central casting. Trained in Afghanistan, he has a long record of smuggling arms, kidnapping and violence, a death sentence passed in absentia, premature reports of his demise and a string of nicknames including One-Eyed, The Uncatchable and Mr Marlboro.
Belmokhtar was born in Algeria in 1972. Aged 19, he travelled to Afghanistan to attend al-Qaeda training camps and lost an eye while handling explosives. He returned home soon after the Algerian military nullified an Islamist victory
Algeria attack: Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed gangster behind the raid
Islamists warned that the French intervention in Mali would "open the gates of hell", and the job of fulfilling that dire prediction appears to have fallen to a veteran, one-eyed jihadist-cum-gangster called Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
Profile: Mokhtar Belmokhtar
Mokhtar Belmokhtar - who is accused of ordering the attack on a gas facility in eastern Algeria in which foreign workers have been killed and taken hostage - is a one-eyed war veteran with the nickname "Mr Marlboro".
He acquired the nickname because of his role in cigarette-smuggling across the Sahel region to finance his jihad, now waged under the banner of the Signed-in-Blood Battalion.
"Belmokhtar has been active in political, ideological and criminal circles in the Sahara for the past two decades," Jon Marks, an academic at the London-based think-tank Chatham House, told the BBC.
Born in Ghardaia in eastern Algeria in 1972, Mr Belmokhtar - according to interviews posted on Islamist websites - was attracted as a schoolboy to waging jihad.