Ministry confirms counterattack

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Norway’s Foreign Ministry confirmed Thursday afternoon that the Algerian military had launched a counterattack on radical Islamists who’d been holding hostages, nine of them Norwegian, at the In Amenas gas processing plant in the Sahara Desert. They would not initially confirm how many were killed or wounded in the military operation, as fears rose that Norwegians were among the casualties.

The Algerian desert at In Amenas remained the scene of a dramatic hostage crisis on Thursday, with nine Norwegians believed to be among those captured. PHOTO: Statoil/Kjetil Alsvik

The Algerian desert at In Amenas remained the scene of a dramatic hostage crisis on Thursday, with nine Norwegians believed to be among those captured. PHOTO: Statoil/Kjetil Alsvik

There was hectic activity at both the Foreign Ministry in Oslo and at the headquarters of Norwegian state oil company Statoil, which has operated the gas plant along with BP of the UK and Algerian energy company Sonatrach for several years.

The plant was attacked early Thursday morning by the group of radical Islamists believed to have spun off from terrorist organization Al-Qaeda. Seventeen Statoil employees were caught in the attack, five escaped including four Norwegians, and 12 are believed to have been captured as hostages.

The foreign ministry announced that Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg had been told about “military action” at the gas plant during a conversation with his Algerian counterpart on Thursday. It was initially unclear how many survived the confirmed counterattack on the Islamists, with hostages likely caught in the crossfire. A mix of unconfirmed reports continued to flow out of Algeria on Thursday, some claiming as many as 50 casualties, others much less. One report claimed the military had managed to rescue only four hostages, from the UK, France and Kenya.

Norwegians had urged restraint
Norwegian authorities, working in a state of emergency, had been urging restraint and are believed to have been startled that the Algerian military attacked the gas plant where the hostages were being held. British authorities also confirmed the attack was in progress Thursday afternoon, and Algerian new bureaus reported the gas plant was under military control by late afternoon.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (right) and Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide addressing the hostage crisis on Norwegian Broadcasting Wednesday evening. Stoltenberg said it was one of the most serious hostage situations Norway had ever been involved in. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (right) and Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide addressing the hostage crisis on Norwegian Broadcasting Wednesday evening. Stoltenberg said it was one of the most serious hostage situations Norway had ever been involved in. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Algerian authorities have been responsible for dealing with the situation at the In Amenas gas plant, and Algerian TV reported earlier that 13 Algerian hostages and 17 foreign hostages had escaped. Neither Statoil officials nor Norwegian government officials could confirm that report, however, and said they had no information whether any Norwegians were among the 17 who reportedly fled.

The drama continued to build with the situation changing almost constantly and, as Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide said, “involving so many.” There were reports that Algerian troops still surrounded the large facility, defying the terrorists’ demands that they disperse, and had attacked with helicopters. There were also reports the area was ringed with explosives and that several hostages also had been forced to wear so-called “bomb belts” that would explode if the Algerian military attacked.

Four of the Norwegians and one Canadian Statoil employee made it to safety as the attack began early Wednesday morning, while the fate of their colleagues was unclear.

Earlier reports from international news agencies and a Swiss newspaper claimed several hostages were wounded, possibly by  Algerian troops who started shooting at the area where the hostages were being held earlier in the day. There also were reports that Algerian forces launched the helicopter attack on the site in an effort to free the hostages, who come from countries including France, the US, Japan, Canada, Austria, Ireland and the UK in addition to Norway and Algeria. Broadcaster Al Jazeera reported that a Japanese and Norwegian were wounded in the attack.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide and his colleagues in the ministry in Oslo, where a crisis center was quickly set up, continued to say they had no information whether any Norwegians were among the dead or wounded.

‘Demanding’
“I can only pass on the information I have, and ask for understanding that it’s demanding to get complete and accurate information given the situation,” Eide told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) at midday on Thursday. “But as of now, we’ve had no information that a Norwegian was killed, nor has Statoil.”

He wouldn’t comment on the reports that some hostages were forced to wear bomb belts or were wounded. “We know a bit about the hostages’ situation, but we have decided not to say much about it,” Eide said, out of consideration to the hostages’ families and the hostages’ safety.

Eide said the situation remain serious and unclear, with a lot at stake. “There are so many different players involved here,” he said. “It’s extremely dramatic.”

The Norwegian government has sent a crisis team to Algeria t0 provide back-up for Norway’s embassy and to be “as prepared as possible” for any release of hostages or other developments. While Statoil’s chief executive Helge Lund indicated early Thursday that the hostage drama may drag on, it could also quickly end through military action or surrender.

“We’re talking with the Algerians and the other countries involved and we’re advocating restraint,” Eide said. “The main focus has to be the lives of the hostages.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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