French troops, Islamists in close-quarter combat
MARKALA, Mali/ALGIERS, Reuters and AFPFrench troops engaged in close combat with Islamist rebels on Wednesday in Mali as al-Qaida-linked fighters attacked a gas plant in neighboring Algeria taking several foreigners hostage.
January 17, 2013, 12:03 am TWN
After days of airstrikes on Islamist positions in the territory they have occupied since April, French and Malian troops battled the insurgents in the small town of Diabaly, some 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of Bamako.
“The special forces are currently in Diabaly, in close-quarter combat with the Islamists. The Malian army is also in place,” a Malian security source said on condition of anonymity.
This was confirmed by a regional security source.
The source added that French soldiers were “on alert” in the town of Niono, 50 kilometers south of Diabaly, as well as in the nearby town of Markala.
Diabaly was seized on Monday by fighters led by Algerian Abou Zeid, one of the leaders of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), as the Islamists remained on the offensive even as French fighter jets pounded their positions.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the western zone where Diabaly lies was home to “the toughest, most fanatical and best-organised groups. It's under way there but it's difficult.”
Gas Field Attack, Kidnappings
Islamist militants attacked a gas production field in southern Algeria on Wednesday, kidnapping at least nine foreigners and killing two people including a French national during a dawn raid, local and company officials said.
The raid, claimed by an al-Qaida affiliate, came after Islamists had vowed to retaliate for France's military intervention in Mali, where its forces have been in action against al-Qaida-linked militants since last week.
The attack also raised fears that the French action could prompt further Islamist revenge attacks on Western targets in Africa, where al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb operates across borders in the Sahara desert, and in Europe.
The al-Qaida group said it had carried out Wednesday's raid on the In Amenas facility in Algeria, Mauritania's ANI news agency reported.
The Algerian interior ministry said: “A terrorist group, heavily armed and using three vehicles, launched an attack this Wednesday at 5 am against a Sonatrach base in Tigantourine, near In Amenas, about 100 km (60 miles) from the Algerian and Libyan border.”
The gas field is operated by a joint venture including BP, Norwegian oil firm Statoil and Algerian state company Sonatrach.
A French national was killed in the attack, a local source said, but it was unclear if the victim was one of those kidnapped.
Algeria's official APS news agency said that one security guard had been killed and seven people were injured including two foreigners.
Five Japanese nationals working for the Japanese engineering firm JCG Corp. were kidnapped as well as a French national, local officials said. An Irishman was also seized, the Irish government said, while a diplomatic source said an American had been kidnapped.
Also kidnapped was a Norwegian gas worker, the newspaper Bergens Tidende said, quoting the man's wife.