Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg went on national television Wednesday evening to say, at that point, that 13 Norwegians were caught in a hostage crisis that continued to unfold at a gas production plant in Algeria. Stoltenberg called the situation “serious and unclear,” and the numbers of hostages later kept changing.
Norwegian state-controlled oil company Statoil announced it had 17 employees on duty at the In Amenas plant in southeastern Algeria when a group of radical Islamists stormed the facility and a bus carrying some employees to an airport at 6:50am Norwegian time. Two of the employees suffered what were called “minor” injuries and four made it to safety at a nearby military camp. Two persons were reported killed, but that was not confirmed.
Stoltenberg and Statoil officials said no one could confirm how many of the remaining 13 were actually being held hostage, and by Thursday morning Statoil was reporting that nine of its Norwegian employees were among those being held by the attackers. As many as 40 other employees at the gas production facility from several nations were also believed to be involved in the hostage crisis. Irish authorities confirmed that a man holding an Irish passport was taken hostage and a Japanese company said several of their employees were seized as well.
Algerian media reported that the Islamists were occupying the residential area of the plant where workers live and that they were heavily armed. They are surrounded by the Algerian army, with Algerian military helicopters reportedly hovering overhead.
Stoltenberg said he couldn’t speculate on the reasons for the attack or what the attackers were demanding. “We were informed about this early today and have since worked to secure the hostages and take care of their families,” Stoltenberg said.
International news bureaus have reported that the Islamists are from Mali, where they’re trying to gain control of the country. They’re reportedly angry with Algeria for allowing French military forces sent to resist the Islamist offensive to use Algerian air space, and are demanding the release of 100 of their members held in Algerian prisons. Algerian authorities reportedly have rejected the demand.
Stoltenberg said his government had set up a crisis team that included former Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, now health minister, and several other ministries. Defense Minister Grete Faremo, who had just arrived in Dublin for meetings, was recalled to Oslo and flew back immediately as did several other key government and Statoil officials including Statoil chief executive Helge Lund.
“We have also sent a team to help support the staff at (Norway’s) embassy in Algeria,” Stoltenberg said. “Right now we can’t go into detail about what other measures are being taken.”
He called the hostage situation as “one of the most serious” Norway has ever been involved in. “I can’t remember another situation like this,” Stoltenberg said. It was unclear whether the attacks, which were said to occur at various places around the In Amenas gas project, was also directed at Norway. Statoil is a partner in the project along with BP of the UK and Sonatrach, the Algerian state energy company.
A Statoil spokesman said the terrorists managed to take control of the gas plant “rather quickly.” They are familiar with the desert area where the plant is located and have what may be called a home turf advantage.
A former Statoil official and expert on North Africa called the situation “very dramatic and dangerous.” Stoltenberg was clear on one point: “Our job now is to get our fellow Norwegians safely home and that no lives are lost.”
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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